June 20, 2024

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Supporting medical device innovation with robotics

Nigel Smith, CEO of industrial robot specialist TM Robotics, explains how advanced automation and robotics can help manufacturers produce new medical innovations.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are an estimated two million different kinds of medical devices on the market, including test tubes, beakers, casings and housings for laboratory and medical equipment, drug delivery components and surgical equipment. Could robotics-led injection moulding support the manufacture of these devices?

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in demand for medical devices across hospitals and medical laboratories, and business analyst Mercer Capital predicts this growth will continue. Its Five Trends to Watch in the Medical Device Industry report cites several driving factors including an increasingly large ageing population, emerging economies and governments’ efforts to curb rising medical costs.

Due to the nature of the sector, companies that develop first-to-market devices can benefit from patents, intellectual property protection and competitive advantages. However, these new devices are subject to strict regulations. As written in The Changing Economics of Medical Technology, a paper by The National Academy of Medicine in the United States, published when it was still called the Institute of Medicine: “It is inevitable that important products such as medical devices will attract many levels of scrutiny because of the great social costs and benefits associated with healthcare.”

Much of this scrutiny is aimed at manufacturers and relates to accountability, device traceability, post-market surveillance, clinical evaluations, and performance studies. All must be factored into new medical designs and developments. To quote Mercer Capital’s report, the rules foster “an environment where firms may realise an acceptable level of returns on their R&D investments.”

To obey these regulations, medical device manufacturers must seek new ways to efficiently produce new innovations without falling short of Quality System regulations, such as “the current good manufacturing practices” specified by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). One method of efficient, quality-conscious production is injection moulding, one of industry’s most common manufacturing processes that is set to be worth $56.5 million by 2027.

Injection moulding machines are already used to produce monitoring devices, infusion pumps and other vital medical equipment. But there is also a drive to manufacture these devices with new and more advanced materials, and with better mould flow and higher impact strength. That includes bioplastics, a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastics made from corn, sugar cane or sugar beets, which are increasingly used to manufacture medical devices.

Moreover, there is increasing pressure to produce medical devices at a faster pace. Production runs, whether they are large or small, must run uninterrupted to produce a certain number of products per hour. There must be standards in place to guarantee the predictable and efficient loading and unloading of moulds, along with smooth working between humans and machines. To achieve this, automation and robotics are crucial.

New ways of doing things

Industrial robots already play a crucial role in loading and unloading applications for plastic injection moulding machines. 6-axis robots are the most widely used industrial machines in general and a trusted workhorse of injection moulding loading and unloading. 

TM Robotics, the premier partner of Shibaura Machine — formerly known as Toshiba Machine — is a robot distributor that specialises in integrating robots with injection moulding devices. The business has recently expanded its range to offer an even more comprehensive choice of six-axis robots to suit these applications.

Shibaura Machine’s series of vertically articulated, 6-axis robots are available in three models, with each robot range possessing varying reach and payload specifications, and a longer arm length compared with previous robot ranges.

That includes the newest TVM range of robots aimed at industries including automotive, medical, packaging and pharmaceutical. The largest of the TVM models is the TVM1500, which provides a maximum reach of 1,715 millimetres. The TVM1200 can reach up to 1,418 millimetres and the smallest model, the TVM900, provides a maximum reach of up to 1,124 millimetres. In addition to three distinctive arm lengths, the operating range of each model can be expanded by mounting the robot onto an optional linear actuator.

Better integration 

Crucially, these robots integrate easily with Shibaura Machine’s injection moulding machines. Among the newest equipment is the SXIII range of injection moulding machines, an all-electric range with enhanced performance that’s designed to provide significantly faster injection speeds than traditional moulding equipment.

When paired with a fast cycle 6-axis robot for loading and unloading, manufacturers can expect increased throughput. These machines are designed for enhanced versatility and performance, with a streamlined design, with aim of supporting faster loading and unloading speeds.

The robots are also designed for plug and play installation, to be easier to program by operators while also easing training costs, aiming for better collaborations between machines and operators on injection moulding lines, and industrial robots that fit in more easily with manufacturers’ established ways for doing things.

Expanded automation will be crucial for ensuring that injection moulding is essential for manufacturing tomorrow’s medical devices cost-effectively, and to the highest quality.


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