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B&R recently announced plans to strengthen its presence in the medical device assemblymarket. We sat down with industry expert Fredrik Holmberg to learn how these companies have been dealing with the struggle of small batch sizes, and how adaptive manufacturing could provide relief.

Fredrik Holmberg oversees B&R's global sales activities in the area of medical device assembly.

Fredrik, let's start with the term medical device assembly itself. Is that basically just another word for medical technology?

Fredrik Holmberg: No, not really. When you talk about medical technology in general, that includes services and a lot of other areas where, as an industrial automation company, we play a limited role. But where we can make a very significant contribution is anywhere individual parts are assembled to make the products used for medical treatments. You surely don't think about it when using a catheter, syringe or infusion set, but all those tubes, valves and needles were produced separately and needed to be put together. That process – called medical device assembly – can benefit enormously from automation.

Why has B&R decided to enter the market now?

Holmberg: The main reason is that our portfolio now includes specific technologies that offer decisive advantages for medical device assembly. They have proven time and again to offer a highly efficient solution to one of the industry's biggest challenges: small-batch production.

What technologies are you talking about?

Holmberg: Well, it starts with intelligent mechatronic systems that enable you to transport products individually. That includes our track systems ACOPOStrak and SuperTrak, as well as our brand new magnetic levitation system, ACOPOS 6D. Add to that robotics and machine vision – all fully integrated and tightly synchronized, of course – and what you've got is a whole new species of manufacturing. What we like to call adaptive manufacturing.

What does that mean, exactly?

Holmberg: The basic idea is quite simple: An adaptive machine or line automatically adjusts itself to handle whatever products are being manufactured. Changing between production runs becomes effortless and profitable. At the same time, lines can easily accommodate new market requirements or government regulations.

That sounds quite promising – does it really work like that in practice?

Holmberg: Say you're assembling syringe sets. As the cylindrical tubes, called barrels, pass by an intelligent machine vision camera, their shape, size and orientation is captured and passed on instantly to a robot. The robot swoops in, picks up the barrel and hands it off gently to two shuttles on a track system. Held snugly between the two shuttles, the barrel is carried straight to the first processing station. With an automation solution like this, it doesn't even matter if every single ampule is a different shape and size – you never need to retool or reprogram the machine.

That sounds great, but let's be honest: All this talk of robots and cameras and track systems has me thinking about the price tag.

Holmberg: Of course there's a certain initial investment, that's true. But what really matters is how quickly it pays off. You also have to consider the alternatives: A conventional machine may be a little cheaper up front, but it's hardly equipped to handle small batches. The cost of constant retooling and reconfiguration quickly eclipses any profit you could have made. So that leaves you with the only other option: manual assembly. With today's shortage of skilled workers and rising wage costs, that's also becoming increasingly unattractive. That's why I'm confident that adaptive manufacturing is the only profitable approach for the future of small-batch production.

Is it possible to back that up with some numbers?

Holmberg: I know of examples where overall equipment effectiveness, the OEE score, was increased by over 50% with an adaptive manufacturing solution based on B&R technology. With a number like that, it's easy to imagine how quickly they recovered that initial investment. And what's particularly impressive are cases involving cleanrooms. If you need to scale up your output, building a whole new cleanroom is a very expensive way to do it. Once again, adaptive manufacturing offers a better alternative. One of our customers managed to cut the footprint of their machine in half while at the same time achieving a double-digit boost in productivity. They didn't need a new cleanroom after all, which saved them a massive investment. And that's something you can only do with adaptive manufacturing.

Very impressive, thanks for your time!

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