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Robotic solution automates the pick-and-place of pharmaceuticals from a conveyor belt

With pressure to save on costs and become more efficient, the pharmaceutical industry is dosing up on ideas from the food industry, with help from Italian automation specialist IMA and ABB robots. Find out more in this video from ABB Robotics.

IMA Industria Macchine Automatiche has over 40 years experience producing automated machines for the pharmaceutical, cosmetics and food industries, with a wide range of customers all over the world.

Recently, the company devised a special version of the Flexa cartoning machine that integrates ABB Robotics’ IRB 340 FlexPicker delta robot. Specially designed for a large US pharmaceutical company, the solution automates the pick-and-place of flow packed teat pipette droppers from a conveyor belt (where they arrive scrambled), and the insertion of the droppers in a carton along with a bottle containing penicillin. And all of this is done at amazingly high rates.

In no small part, the solution is a result of the audacity of IMA in revising the feed concept that had already been fully approved by the customer - while the project was actually being developed! Instead, IMA proposed a more effective solution that transferred methods and experience from the food segment and cleverly adapted them to the specific demands of pharmaceutical production.

The new version of the Flexa cartoning machine was made to meet the demands of its American user, who needed to replace an old penicillin bottle packaging system where the dropper handling was mostly done by hand. The challenge, said IMA, consisted not so much in processing and placing the bottles in cartons, which is not an unusual demand, but rather in handling the flow packed dropper, in particular at a rate of 150 items per minute. Moreover, the behavior of the flow packs is extremely variable, with some packs adhering perfectly to the product while others swell up, which makes them difficult to handle and position correctly for feeding into the cartoning machine.

To solve the problem, IMA used two ABB Robotics’ IRB 340 FlexPicker parallel robots. The robots pick up the droppers from a belt on which they arrive scrambled. There the droppers are viewed and identified with the PickMaster, ABB Robotic’s guidance control system that includes vision based on Cognex hardware, which is integrated into the FlexPicker.

Once the positions and the orientation of the droppers have been calculated, the PickMaster software transfers their co-ordinates via Ethernet to each of the two robots, while phasing both their workloads. The robots are capable of

working at rates that are much higher than those demanded by the customer. The system works in several stages that entail the temporary storage of the flow packs in mini-pallets, their subsequent orientation and, only after that, insertion into the cartoning machine.

The solution devised in co-operation with ABB Robotics offers a series of advantages. For one, the overall layout of the machine takes up less space. Secondly, a risk analysis has shown that there are a limited number of critical points. Lastly, a robotized system, in the mid- to long-term, guarantees lower maintenance costs and a far less complex tooling up period compared to mechanical solutions.

However, what really makes the difference above all is the flexibility. By merely replacing the end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) on the robots, they can handle dissimilar products - anything from syringes to spoons instead of droppers.

While the end customer was initially concerned about the programming of the robot, the apprehension was unsubstantiated, since IMA and ABB Robotics provide all the assistance needed, before, during and after installation.

IMA has stated the solution represents an “opening up, a dialogue between this segment and others, foods first and foremost, in a continuous exchange of experiences and technologies, where everyone has a lot to gain. To confirm a certain synergy between the two areas that, up to even just a few years ago seemed far apart. More and more project engineers today committed to pharmaceutical companies have transferred over from the food sector, or at any rate come from the field of consumer products.”

This is due, above all, to the growing attention reserved to costs and times, IMA states; two competitive variables that the pharmaceutical industry also pays increasingly close attention to. The radical changes that are affecting the entire pharmaceutical market force the producers – and thus their suppliers – to pay maximum attention to the overall efficiency of their lines; and in this, the food segment has a lot to teach.

If in the past, packaging lines were only devised for a single product and format, now they have to be flexible, efficient and adaptable to different products and formats. With these kind of complex demands, robots can give the best answers as has been demonstrated in the food and many industrial sectors already.

Side bar: Why automate pharmaceutical packaging?
As pharmaceutical companies increasingly follow the food and other industries in automating their packaging processes, the solution from IMA using ABB Robotics IRB 340 FlexPicker robots is a good example of the advantages of using robots:
* The overall layout of the machine takes up less space
* Limited number of critical points
* Lower maintenance costs and a far less complex tooling up period compared to mechanical solutions

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