The personal care and pharmaceuticals market has grown significantly over the past few decades. In 2001 the industry was worth $390 billion, but by 2022 global revenue for pharma businesses had surpassed $1.48 trillion. In the US alone, more than four billion prescriptions are dispensed every year. Personal care – defined as non-medicinal consumer products like cosmetics, fragrances and toiletries – is a behemoth of a market too, with its revenue value standing at $626 billion in 2023. $98 billion alone can be attributed to US customers.
Behind the scenes, personal care and pharmaceutical manufacturing is a complex process with two clear sides. The front end operates like a chemical plant, in which large-scale, set processes continuously run to create products from raw materials and ingredients. The back end involves discrete tasks, like erecting boxes, case packing and palletizing in different configurations, which can be challenging for traditional automation solutions.
To meet growing demand, it’s essential that manufacturers find technical solutions that increase productivity in a cost-effective, compliant way. Cobots, or collaborative robots, are driving efficiencies across a range of back-end processes – even some not traditionally considered candidates for automation.
Here are some of the benefits and applications of cobots in personal care and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Precision and efficiency
Cobots make automation more accessible to businesses across the pharmaceutical and personal care sectors. With a lower cost of entry and a typically faster return on investment, they’re a feasible solution for smaller manufacturers. They can also add value within larger production lines, as cobots can be reprogrammed and deployed to a range of tasks. Cobots can be invert or wall mounted to save floor space, or even fixed to moveable platforms to increase their flexibility.
Advanced robotic automation can be difficult to implement for a number of reasons. Even if it’s not cost-prohibitive, businesses still need to invest significant resources into programming and configuring each robot cell. They can also prove impractical in smaller facilities. Traditional robots must have shielded, caged work cells around them, making the rest of the space impractically cramped. Subject to risk assessment, cobots can operate without barriers – meaning they take up little more space than a human colleague.
While front-end processes are best suited to high-speed traditional robots, cobots can be transformative in back-end, end-of-line applications. They can automate physically intensive, repetitive processes and offer consistent, quality outputs without the normal downtime associated with manual processes.
Packing and palletizing – two highly manual and labor-heavy but essential tasks – are well-suited to cobots’ strengths. Here are some real-life examples of how our clients have been able to utilize cobots in their facilities.
There are three levels of packaging that all play an important role in a product’s lifecycle. Primary packaging, which is in direct contact with the product, protects the goods and displays product and branding information. In personal care and pharmaceuticals, this would be something like a blister packet, medication box, shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube. The secondary level keeps the primary packaging clean and protected, while the tertiary packaging is used to move bulk quantities of products.
In pharmaceuticals, the risk of contamination is a huge concern – but automation solutions like cobots can remove human hands from the most contamination-sensitive processes, protecting sterile environments. Cobots can also be configured to handle tedious tasks such as case packing, but it’s important they’re equipped with the right end of arm tooling (EOAT) or end effector. Depending on the end effector and software, they can assemble empty boxes and move primary or secondary packaging into larger cases.
Oral health manufacturer Nippon Zettoc had found recruiting skilled staff challenging, like many of its peers across pharma and personal care. After seeing Universal Robots machines in action at a German factory, the business realized quickly how cobots could fit into Nippon’s own production lines. To suit its business model – which involves producing small quantities of different products – it crafted a custom end effector that was compatible with the Universal Robots UR5.
Nippon installed four UR5 cobots to handle its inner box packing, freeing up one of the section’s two workers for other tasks. Production has increased by 30% and the line is consistently productive, even when its humans take breaks. Nippon has also fully automated its outer-box packing using one UR5 cobot – allowing its former operator to complete valuable, detail-oriented tasks like process inspection. See more at https://www.universal-robots.com/case-stories/nippon-zettoc/
Palletizing is one of the most physically demanding areas of a production line. Stacking boxes of goods on pallets for transportation is a repetitive action which can put strain on workers over time. Cobots can stack boxes in custom configurations, which can be easily programmed using compatible software, to make the best use of a pallet’s surface area.
In the fast-paced world of pharmaceuticals, cobots’ speed and ability to work consistently without downtime can help manufacturers seamlessly scale up production. For smaller facilities without space for caged work cells, cobots open up the possibility of automating palletizing – and in a more cost-effective way, too. Learn more and download the Guide to Robotic Palletizing at https://www.universal-robots.com/applications/palletizing/ .