"We doubled their output from the same footprint"

As the rapidly growing field of medical device assembly (MDA) embraces digitalization, companies are looking for ways to make labor-intensive processes more productive and flexible without adding costly floorspace. To find out how they can master these challenges, we sat down with B&R's MDA specialist and Adaptive Ambassador, Lazaros Patsakas.

What's the current situation in the field of medical device assembly?

Lazaros Patsakas: The medical device market has been averaging nearly 8% growth in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue. That's in part due to an aging population in developed countries and more people gaining access to healthcare in developing countries. Also, today's technology is creating new ways to improve our quality of life, and people everywhere are growing more health conscious – especially in the context of the pandemic.

How has the pandemic impacted the industry?

Patsakas: On the one hand, there has been an overall positive impact on the industry's growth. But on the other, it has highlighted the risk of having semi-automated processes that rely on human operators: During the pandemic we saw that it is not always possible to have people on site. There were also sudden spikes in demand for certain items, so we saw the value of being able to scale output rapidly.

What are the current trends in terms of the devices being assembled?

Patsakas: Medical devices are growing in both complexity and variety. If you look at inhalers for asthma – they used to be a simple pump mechanism, but now many also have dials to adjust the dosage and they come in a rainbow of different colors. It's also becoming common for all sorts of devices, such as glucose meters for diabetes, to have a digital display and connect to an app on your smartphone.

So manufacturers need to meet growing demand while also handling complexity and variety.

Patsakas: That's right, as medical technology companies embrace digitalization and invest in automation, they're looking for ways to be as flexible and efficient as possible. That can mean automating a previously manual assembly station with robotics or replacing rigidly mechanical automation like a rotary table with a flexible mechatronic system. Either way, what's particularly critical in MDA is implementing these solutions on as small of a footprint as possible.

Why's that so important?

Patsakas: Floorspace always costs money, but when you're talking about cleanrooms, it's a whole other level. If you're able to get the flexibility and output you need without having to build a new cleanroom – that's a serious gamechanger. To give you an idea of what I mean: with a customer who assembles drip chambers for IV sets, we actually doubled their output from the same footprint.

How was that possible?

Patsakas: The problem with a lot of existing lines is that their limits are set by the weakest link in the chain: The slowest processing station is the one that determines how fast they can run. The bulkiest station is the one that determines how tight the product pitch can be. Removing these limits opens up room for dramatic improvement – and that's exactly what we're able to do with adaptive manufacturing.

"If you're able to get the flexibility and output you need without having to build a new cleanroom – that's a serious gamechanger," says Lazaros Patsakas.

What's adaptive manufacturing?

Patsakas: Adaptive manufacturing refers to the unique abilities that emerge from a combination of today's most advanced automation technology: things like robotics, machine vision, digital twin simulation and mechatronic product transport. Often the focus is on optimizing OEE in small-batch production. But, even in situations where you're not constantly changing between different products, adaptive solutions have a huge impact on production density.

How do they do that?

Patsakas: One of the key technologies I mentioned is mechatronic product transport, like our SuperTrak, ACOPOStrak and ACOPOS 6D. These systems help shrink the machine footprint in several ways: First, they make it easy to add multiple instances of slower stations. That gives you a big increase in speed with a minimal impact on footprint. They also allow you to eliminate buffers and empty stretches of conveyor. Finally, products are carried on individual shuttles that can vary their spacing on the fly, so you can easily tighten up the pitch when the stations allow and perform value-adding work on every inch of floorspace.

Mechatronic product transport makes it possible to perform value-adding work on every inch of floorspace.

So, you eliminate engineering constraints. What about regulatory constraints?

Patsakas: Well, we can't eliminate those, of course, but we can make them easier to deal with. In MDA, whenever you expand or modify a line, what it often comes down to is how fast you can redesign, revalidate and get it running. With a track system, you can add or replace individual segments without affecting the rest of the line. That's not the case with something like a rotary table, where you have to redesign the whole thing and revalidate the entire machine.

Sounds like it makes life a lot easier for machine builders.

Patsakas: For sure. As a machine builder you have much more flexibility when your customer comes to you with changes: a new station, a different order of stations, different cycle times. You can say no problem and have them designed, validated and running in much less time.

What about after the line is up and running?

Patsakas: Adaptive manufacturing also simplifies regulatory tasks during operation, such as serialization and track-and-trace. On the one hand, tightly synchronized machine vision cameras are able to scan codes at very high speed. And on the other, digitalization is a built-in feature of the track system that doesn't require any extra hardware or personnel. You used to need a worker signing papers saying they performed a specific task at a specific time. When you have continuous control of each product throughout the entire line – and each shuttle is uniquely identified – you have a digital signature for every product and process, nearly in real time.

Speaking of time: Thanks for yours!

Lazaros Patsakas

Global Segment Manager - Medical Device Assembly

If you're able to get the flexibility and output you need without having to build a new cleanroom – that's a serious gamechanger.
Let's talk about what it means to #ThinkAdaptive

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