As demand for new drugs and medicines grows, pharmaceutical companies are continuously looking for new ways to increase productivity, leading to an increased reliance on automated equipment and robotics. These changes in ways of working will revolutionise many areas of the industry and are likely to have an effect on jobs.
The adoption of robots in pharma has actually been lagging other industries for several reasons. Firstly, not only is there the high initial cost of purchasing and using robots, but also the industry is abound with misperceptions that robotic systems are too complicated to use and require complex programming. Current systems have dramatically increased the capability and flexibility of robots and experts are now predicting that they could soon be pivotal to pharmaceutical companies in their ability to reduce costs and increase overall efficiency.
Inevitably, robots will perform some pharma jobs in the future that are currently done by humans, although it is argued by economists that the technology will actually create more jobs than it replaces by giving us freedom to do new work – erasing labour-intensive tasks that were once essential. What is saved on labour rebounds to increased capital availability for new ideas. This has proved to be true historically across all industries with other advancements in technology (for example, the car and the internet) which have made some jobs redundant but ultimately created entirely new ways to earn a living.
A market report from the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI) stated that by 2018, robots are expected to be used in 34% of primary packaging plants in the pharmaceutical industry representing a 13% increase in less than 5 years. Packaging is not the only area in which robotics could revolutionise drug manufacture, their applications extend even into drug development and discovery.
Efficiency and precision
The use of robots in the pharmaceutical industry has many advantages when it comes to speed. Robots can perform tasks around three or four times faster than humans can and additionally can be used 24 hours a day. Such qualities make them excellent at producing large quantities of a product in a short space of time. Robots are also able to move to a precision smaller than a sheet of paper, which far exceeds the accuracy that any human could provide.
To date, robots have been successfully used by Merck on bottling lines to place dispenser caps onto bottled allergy medications. The robots are capable of operating at 120 cycles per second, with ten variants of the bottle capable of running on the system. The only requirement for the human employees is to select the correct program for the robotic system itself.
It should also be noted that typical robotic systems today use far fewer parts than conventional equipment and have quicker changeover processes as well as less required maintenance. The overall cost of using robots is therefore far less expensive. A single robot can perform the functions of numerous pieces of equipment and therefore reduce the amount of space necessary to build a factory. Unlike conventional equipment, these robots can also be retooled and reworked for completely different applications.
In the laboratory
Many of the tests performed in the lab are to do with research, discovery and development of drugs, and usually involve repetitive tasks such as moving fluids and test tubes. In this way, robots are an ideal choice for these jobs because they are easy to automate and provide a high level of accuracy and consistency. The use of robots in such a way also enables researchers to bypass menial tasks and focus their time on more worthwhile activities such as real drug development and research. To date, robots have already been made for these purposes, with SciGene having manufactured a robot that can prepare DNA samples. The laboratory technician or researcher does not require engineering skills, but can program the robot using simple instructions. The precision is so high that robots today can put 40,000 dots of DNA onto a single microscopic slide – such a feat cannot be rivalled by human hands.
Robots could also be useful in assisting pharmacies and drug companies in the identification of counterfeit medications or drugs that have been produced fraudulently. With the advent of online pharmacies, there have been an overwhelming number of cases of medications that are not what they claim to be on the packaging – some containing none of the active ingredient or even ingredients that are harmful to the user. The pharmaceutical industry has therefore placed an increasing emphasis on being able to trace drugs from manufacturing all the way to the point of sale or dispensing. Robotics are extremely useful in this way because when a medication is purchased, barcode scanners are able to determine quickly whether that product was sold legitimately. If a product that was intended for New York ends up in Texas, systems can quickly flag the product and identify it as a potential counterfeit drug.
We are already seeing some large hospitals and clinics use robotics to dispense various medications. Analysts expect the interest in so-called 'robotic pharmacies' will only increase as demand rises. Additionally, many in the industry are foreseeing total robotic pharmacies in the future that could do away with the need for a pharmacist to physically dispense medications. The benefits of robotic dispensing are decreased errors in giving out incorrect medicines and reduced staff latency resulting in increased overall efficiency of the pharmacy at hand. Such a dramatic change on the retail-level will no doubt take many years to come to fruition but the technology is already available and ready to be used. It must also be noted that monetary returns on using robots would be achieved far faster in 'big pharma', then in 'small pharma' and retail shops.
Just like other industries, the pharma industry is increasingly looking to improve the sustainability of its operations, and in order to do this drug manufacturers have had to reduce waste and pollutants and conserve energy. Robots can certainly assist in achieving these goals as the motors, drives and gearboxes that run them have been found to be up to 95% energy efficient. The increased efficiency and reliability that robots provide also means that there are far fewer rejected products and wasted materials, creating savings in the millions. Furthermore, each robot is constituted of disposable components which in turn reduce cleaning expenses and the amount of water and chemical consumption, thereby reducing carbon footprints.
To the future
The changes and benefits robots that could provide the pharmaceutical industry are seemingly endless. From creating vast savings to increasing efficiency and safety it is the robots' speed, precision, reliability and flexibility that make them such valuable tools. The question therefore becomes not so much how can robots change the pharmaceutical industry, but rather when will we see these changes come into full effect?
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