By James McKew
With the daily reports of COVID-19 outbreaks on the newly infected cases and mortality rates, the pandemic continues to heighten anxiety and fear. Global economic calamity, disruptions to business continuity, rising demands in digital health, and unprecedented demand for healthcare resources are factors resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite new rules and regulations imposed to combat the outbreak, the pandemic has exacerbated challenges to the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. With a rapid turnaround of test results, access to personal protective equipment, and increasing test volumes, laboratories need to seek new ways to adapt to the constantly rising demands and standards.
For years, technological developments in robotics and automation are regarded as one of the most significant advancements in clinical laboratories. Now, automation is playing an important role in assisting laboratories in minimising disruptions and overcoming the impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies are increasing their usage of automation in laboratories. In 2020, the global lab automation market reported a market value of USD 5.28 billion and is expected to reach USD 8.58 billion by the end of 2026, with a CAGR of 8.53 per cent from 2021 to 2026. Gradually, lab automation is gaining traction in the pharmaceutical industry and it is imperative for labs to adhere to the highest standards of quality and performance.
Research labs and pharmaceutical companies are adapting to lab automation where advanced technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and more are utilised to automate manual and high-volume tasks. From optimising blood sample analysis and laboratory testing, lab automation is applied to a variety of processes and equipment. In a clinical laboratory, ensuring the accuracy of test results by reducing the manual tasks associated with human workers is of utmost importance. Additional factors including the need to meet the space requirements of the lab, safety concerns, and rapid and consistent turnaround time are placed into consideration when adopting an automated solution. As it may be a challenge for laboratories to invest in a fully automated laboratory system due to financial and space constraints, collaborative robots (cobots) are introduced.
Gentofte Hospital achieved lab target thanks to cobots
This is the case for Copenhagen University Hospital in Gentofte, Denmark. A fully automated lab robotic system is not an option for Gentofte Hospital as human intervention is required in the lab. The hospital lab needed compact robots to be installed in its space-constrained area, hence, large and bulky machinery is not feasible. Despite facing a 20 per cent increase in the number of blood samples sent to the lab, the lab management attempted to uphold its lab target of having 90 per cent of all blood samples analysed within an hour without adding more employees. Taking all the above factors into consideration, Gentofte Hospital deployed two UR5 cobots to optimise the handling and sorting processes. The interactive design of UR cobots allows for an easy set-up and the capability of working alongside human employees without safety cages (upon risk assessment), allows technicians to easily intervene in the handling of blood samples. The deployment of UR5 cobots enables the hospital lab to keep its promise of delivering more than 90 per cent of results within an hour.
Manufacturing “teeth” with cobots
Machine tending is one of the tasks that is ideally suited for cobots implementation. Cobots can relieve human employees from these dull and repetitive tasks, freeing them to work on better and more exciting roles. Frequently used for metal components, cobots are now deployed to manufacture dental crowns. At Glidewell laboratories in California, a UR5 cobot was deployed to tend four CNC machines milling dental crowns. Prior to automating the processes, Glidewell laboratories took five days to complete the entire process, from tooth impression to the finished crown. The company believed that an intelligent automation solution could ensure a more fluent process. As a result, Glidewell laboratories managed to cut the production cycle time from 27 hours to 18 hours and saving two milling operators per shift.
Collaborative robots are enhancing the drug research processes and boosting productivity in the pharmaceutical industry. The precision and safety of researchers and technicians are vital in a laboratory setting. With limited available spaces, time, and budget constraints, cobots have proven to be beneficial for laboratories. Besides automating in larger-scale labs, the COVID-19 pandemic has also emphasised the importance of having small and medium-sized labs to serve the communities. As smaller labs struggle with the rise of test volumes without an increase in resources, lab automation has been made available to these labs and cobots will assist in delivering constant results.
About the author: James McKew (pictured above) is the Regional Director of Asia-Pacific Universal Robots. This is an opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this publication.
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