More and more blood glucose monitors, inhalers, IV bags, orthopedic implants, pacemakers, stents, syringes and other products are produced with robots. Adept Technology Inc. (Livermore, CA) is a leading supplier of assembly robots for medical device applications. ASSEMBLY magazine recently asked Craig Tomita, director of the company’s medical products business, to share his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities currently affecting the market.

More and more blood glucose monitors, inhalers, IV bags, orthopedic implants, pacemakers, stents, syringes and other products are produced with robots. Adept Technology Inc. (Livermore, CA) is a leading supplier of assembly robots for medical device applications. ASSEMBLY magazine recently asked Craig Tomita, director of the company’s medical products business, to share his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities currently affecting the market.

Are you seeing more robotic applications for medical device assembly today? What’s driving that demand?
Tomita: Yes. The demand for automating the process of assembling medical devices is hotter than ever, especially using the flexibility of robots vs. dedicated or “hard” automation. Several issues contributing to this are the desire to avoid injury to workers and the increasing cost of workmen’s compensation claims.
In addition, automation and the validation of manufacturing processes is doing much to reduce problems with incorrectly assembled devices or packages that are missing parts or components. In some areas, I’m even seeing instances where the lack of skilled labor is also a factor in the decision to use automation.
Robots are increasingly being used because of their ability to adapt quickly to product changes. Next year’s product might be totally different in design from this year’s product, and the automation needs to able to adapt to the change.

What types of medical devices are being assembled with robotics?
Tomita: All types of medical devices are being assembled robotically, from breast implants to pregnancy testers. Automation is increasingly being used to not only manufacture medical devices, but also to check them for correct assembly or to detect manufacturing defects.

What types of robots are ideal for assembling medical devices?
Tomita: The application is what determines which robot type is the best fit. Each type of robot brings its own pros and cons. Cartesian coordinate robots are used in applications requiring high degrees of repeatability. They also bring the added benefit of being relatively easy to service. If one axis goes down, it is a fairly simple matter to swap it out for a replacement axis and resume production.
SCARA robots are, by far, the fastest robots and are ideal for high-speed applications. They are available in both floor- and ceiling-mounted variants. Having only 4 axes of motion, they don’t provide the articulation provided by a 6-axis robot. But, many applications don’t require this, and SCARA robots are simpler and less expensive.

Are any types of medical device components more difficult to assemble with robotics?
Tomita: In general, difficulty in assembly of medical device components is often with the automated feeding of the parts. Some parts composed of silicone (or parts that are of a certain shape, or with attributes that cause them to get tangled or stick together) can often pose a challenge during integration.
In the past, bowl feeders or centrifugal feeders were the method used to singulate parts for automated handling. Flexible feeding is being increasingly used to replace such feeders in many applications. This type of feeder can accommodate multiple parts, whereas vibratory bowl-type feeders are often designed to handle a specific part. Again, flexibility is the key.
People use robots because they bring flexibility to manufacturing. Using machine vision systems to guide the robot to the part in the feeder is yet another means of increasing flexibility.