Collaborative robots could help medical device packagers with kitting, assembly, case packing, and palletizing, as long as the loads are under 22 lb, reports Travis Langford, sales development manager, Universal Robots USA Inc. Using such cobots could give small- to medium-sized businesses the chance to automate and help bring business back from overseas, he tells PMP News.
To help medical device packaging professionals explore the potential of cobots, United Packaging Associates (UPA) is holding an event on October 19 entitled “Medical Device Packaging and Cobotics.” The event is being hosted by SteriPack. “Without question, I believe the introduction of cobots will have a positive effect on our business,” says David Moore, business development manager for SteriPack. “The medical device industry is built on quality standards and on adhering to these standards in each and every process. Cobot technology will allow us to repeat certain processes over and over again within a minute tolerance, thus eradicating potential for human error. It’s a technology that will further enhance our day-to-day operations and add value to the output of our workers who engage with cobots.”
Packaging professionals are looking for more details on cobots. During recent interviews with UPA members about specific topics for future meetings, cobots came up, so UPA decided to tackle it. “UPA asked Universal Robots to facilitate a presentation on cobotics because it is an emerging topic that people don’t understand very well,” says Janice Loppe, who sits on the UPA Board of Directors. (She also serves as Sr. Director of Corporate Development for IPG.) “Unfortunately, I cannot offer any expert opinions on the future of cobotics and manufacturing. However, from my perspective, many applications in packaging, particularly activities like kitting or short runs of specialty packages, are not good candidates for automation. These applications are largely performed manually. With employee issues such as labor shortages and operator fatigue, it’s possible that cobotics may offer new solutions to the packaging industry. Those are the questions that I personally hope to have answered on Oct 19.”
To help potential users understand the difference between robots and cobots, Langford tells PMP News that “traditional robots were built to do super human things in terms of speed, repeatability, payload, and more, while cobots are built to do human tasks. They can assist humans with dull, dirty, or dangerous tasks, and if needed they could assist employers when operators are unavailable.”
Cobots are also equipped with “brain power” (i.e., software) that enables them to detect force, he explains. “They are force and power limited, even though they are capable of more. They can detect a deviation from the level of power exerted (e.g., if touched by a human), and then they wait to be acknowledged.” Fencing and guarding are therefore typically not required, he adds, making them suitable for kitting, packing, and palletizing alongside humans. “We can put cobots where robots can’t be,” he says.
Langford plans to demonstrate a cobot at SteriPack and provide a brief tutorial on getting up and running, which he says can often be within an hour or two. He’ll also show some general concept videos and facilitate a “hand-to-motion demo.” (And Universal Robots’s web site includes case studies and videos demonstrating the use of cobots in medical, pharmaceutical, and other healthcare-related applications.)
Such demonstrations might help attendees feel a bit more comfortable about cobots. “I’m sure there are mixed feelings about the advancement of cobot technologies and the potential affect this could have on our workforce,” adds Moore.
The event on cobots is the type of trends-focused meetings that UPA plans to host. The new organization aims to provide opportunities that help “individuals remain relevant and increase their value professionally by understanding trends as well as through strategic networking,” says Loppe.
“The great recession hit the reset button on our economy, and one of the things that went away was the big training budget,” she continues. “But the expectation that you remain current isn’t going away.”
For networking, it is important for packaging professionals to “expand outside their circles,” says Loppe. “Things change a lot, and professionals need to stay on top of everything—but not just in their own circles and group of vendors.” To ensure networking, board members act as ambassadors, she adds.
Such new connections are important because “no supplier does everything,” she added. “Materials and equipment have to work together. Packaging tends to be a regional business. If you have connections, you are more valuable. It is one of UPA’s mission is to encourage dialogue with the different packaging sectors in geographic area.”
A recent tour of medical device manufacturer Exactech paired University of Florida packaging students with industry members. In addition to helping students, the experience fostered communication beyond traditional circles, she says.
Another meeting intended to engage everyone on the issues was held in June around the theme “Evolve or Perish.” No specific agenda was planned in advance. Instead, attendees were asked to write down topics, explain their importance, and host discussions on them. They then broke off into multiple concurrent group discussions; the notes from those sessions were transcribed on site and then provided in a book of proceedings, Loppe reports.
SteriPack has been involved with UPA since its inception, says Moore. “We have found it to be a very progressive organization always hosting unique and engaging events. When we were given the opportunity to finally host an event at our facility there was no hesitation. The upcoming event on October 19th allows SteriPack the opportunity to showcase our ISO Class 7 cleanrooms along with some of the new technologies we have invested in. In addition to this exposure, it provides a valuable opportunity for our employees to network and meet other suppliers and vendors from the local area. In my experience, it’s often shocking how little we know about the outstanding array of businesses often on our doorstep.”
Cobots will also be discussed at an upcoming panel discussion on November 9 at Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis:
Moderator: Charles Murray (Design News)