Collaborative Robots in Medical Device Manufacturing

Image from Sanofi case study
Image from Sanofi case study

The World Health Organization estimates that are over two million types of medical devices spanning 7,000 categories  currently in use around the world – from life-saving ventilators and EpiPens to highly specialized intra-ocular lenses and medical implants. Lots of medical devices are produced in high volumes too. More than one million cardiac pacemakers, for  example, are fitted to patients every year.

To protect patient health, every medical device must be made to extremely precise specifications – and tight manufacturing tolerances. To maintain safety and efficacy, and keep regulators satisfied, there’s no room for error.

For the most precise tasks that demand faultless consistency, cobots (collaborative robots) are a cost-effective and reliable solution. They’re suitable for a wide range of medical device manufacturers – from niche firms to multinational pharmaceutical companies. But what exactly can they do?

Understanding medical device manufacturing

In the US, medical device manufacturing is a complex process. Developing new devices involves a five-step process  overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which includes extensive research, testing and reviewing. The process is a little different depending on the device’s classification. For Class 3 devices, which the FDA classifies as those that sustain or support human life, or prevent impairment of health, all manufacturers need to obtain Premarket Approval. This step involves inspections of manufacturing labs and facilities to make sure they’re following good manufacturing practices.

Once approval is secured, and the actual device has been cleared by the FDA, it’s vital that the manufacturing process meets the FDA’s Quality System Regulation. Essentially, this means every task, from assembly, kitting and machine tending to packaging and palletizing, has to be carried out in a way that consistently meets strict specifications. Manufacturers will also have to satisfy the FDA’s stringent post-launch safety monitoring requirements. This can include unannounced inspections, which can lead to facilities being shut down if they don’t meet the FDA’s high standards.

Consistency is an area where cobots excel – and it’s what makes them well suited to environments that can be challenging for humans to maintain.

Sterility and precision are two of the most important aspects in medical device manufacturing. Using a cobot for processes like injection molding, machining and surface finishing makes compliance simpler. They can be programmed to complete precise tasks with incredibly slim error margins. And, unlike humans, who are at risk of contamination with unavoidable bathroom and cafeteria visits, cobots never have to leave their sterile stations.

Cobot use cases for device manufacturers

There are lots of compelling use cases for cobots – but machine tending, and assembly and kitting, are two of the most commonly adopted.  Learn more about cobots in medical manufacturing here

Machine tending

In manufacturing, machine tending refers to a range of tasks around the loading and unloading of industrial machines. It could be as simple as manually unloading an injection molding machine or as complex and potentially dangerous as handling hot, sharp or fragile parts.   Whether a task is a tedious and inefficient use of operators’ time or too risky for humans to carry out, cobots can take many machine tending tasks off their hands.

Due to automation, we are now in a situation where no one can harm us. We produce high quality products at a fair price. And above all, we can deliver on time. These are advantages that our customers appreciate

Robert Hofmann, CEO at Hofmann Glastechnik

At Hofmann Glastechnik, eight cobots have saved its staff from loading fragile glass tubes into lathes. CEO Robert Hoffman was drawn in by the “manageable” price and purchased a UR10 to trial. The cobots proved themselves and the facility added seven more in quick succession. They’ve increased productivity by 25%, allowing Hoffmann to complete more orders, and it achieved a full return on its cobot investment in just 12 months.  See more here

Image from Glastechnik case study
Image from Glastechnik case study

The world’s largest hearing aid manufacturer, Oticon, replaced robots with less maneuverability with a six-axis UR5 – allowing it to automate small, highly variable production runs involving parts as small as a millimeter. And for Glidewell Manufacturers, a UR5 cobot has helped to cut part of the dental crown milling process from 27 to 18 hours. Its milling operators have been moved onto more complex, fulfilling tasks, and the business is exploring adding three or four more cobots to its operations soon.  See more here

Assembly and kitting

Cobots are also adept at assembly and kitting tasks, which involve precisely arranging or packing components to make a finished product. They can work at speed without the need for downtime, increasing daily throughput without compromising on quality. Cobots can also work quickly at a high level of precision, maintaining exacting standards and eliminating human errors.

Cobots are also far more flexible than other automation solutions. While traditional industrial robots offer speed and precision, they can take much longer to reconfigure and are typically fixed in one spot. Cobots can be moved around to support small production runs or cover temporary staff shortages at will.  Learn more about assembly applications here

Aurolab, part of Aravind eye care systems, is a non-profit healthcare organization that’s working to eliminate preventable blindness. Its cataract kit and intraocular lenses are shipped to NGOs and hospitals across 130+ countries, which help those living in poverty regain and protect their vision.

In collaboration with Universal Robots’ distributor, GI India Automation and Systems, Aurolab has introduced eight cobots that have increased product output by an impressive 15% annually – all while working to 0.1mm repeatability precision and delivering a return on their investment in under two years.  See more here

Get in touch to find out more about how our cobot solutions could transform your medical device manufacturing operations. Contact us here and we will review your application, connect you with a qualified UR solution partner, arrange a live demonstration and more.

Joe Campbell

Joe Campbell is a 40+ year veteran of the robotics and automation industry. After executive assignments in sales, marketing, operations and customer service with industry leading robot, system integrator and engineering companies, Joe recently retired as head of strategic marketing for Universal Robots North America. He is a regular speaker, lecturer and author on manufacturing labor issues, and the technology and economic benefits of robots and factory automation.

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