Electricity + Control

In the medical industry, changes are a constant. Today’s top medical manufacturers develop and create an incredible range of products, from the tiniest ‘implantables’ to unbelievably large and complex MRI machines and everything in between. Flexibility on the manufacturing floor is critical to keep up with both the continual updates to a company’s catalogue, as well as the ever-evolving technology always surrounding the medical industry. Lightweight robotics are used in a wide variety of tasks on the medical manufacturing floor. They are used to aid in the assembly of products, as well as in performing quality check procedures.

Lightweight robotics for medical manufacturing1Unlike humans, robotic systems can complete the same task countless times without sacrificing precision. For example, when performing a quality analysis, a robotic arm can be programmed to inspect the exact dimensions of an implantable medical device and prevent imperfect pieces from continuing along the conveyor or assembly line. Smaller, lighter, and lower in cost than traditional industrial robots, lightweight robotic arms have a wide range of benefits in the fast-paced world of medical manufacturing. However, there are still a number of challenges that must be faced.

 In today’s manufacturing climate, there are numerous challenges to overcome by plant supervisors and assembly line designers; the most difficult being flexibility. The ability to quickly react and adjust to product updates, new manufacturing procedures, or quantity changes is critical for plant managers, as well as the companies they work for. Global demand, partnered with fast changes in technology in the medical industry means that manufacturing is constantly evolving.

A traditional manufacturing facility, even one utilising lightweight robotic arms, is not designed for these types of fluctuations. The inability to quickly adapt and change robotic systems can lead to plant backup and lost potential sales, or expensive changes to a plant’s setup and organisation. Unlike large scale industrial robotic systems, lightweight robots allow for lighter, easier movement in smaller spaces.

A number of lightweight robotic systems are available on the market from manufacturers such as Universal Robots, ABB, and KUKA, which are fully assembled standardised systems complete with drive. Other manufacturers, such as igus, offer robotic joint systems, which are modular, enabling them to fit into very small spaces, as well as easily adjust to different tasks. These systems, while used to complete similar tasks, are actually very different technologies with their own advantages and drawbacks.

Lightweight robots vs. lightweight robotic joint systems

Lightweight robotics for medical manufacturingLightweight robotic arms are a complete physical system with included controller systems and software, which can be programmed to complete a range of tasks. These systems are an excellent all-in-one solution for light duty tasks in manufacturing facilities, but are not able to adapt when changes to the robot’s physical structure is required, or if a different controller, type of programming, or other changes are required. Robotic joint systems, on the other hand, are ideal for this type of flexibility. Where a robotic arm is designed by the robotic manufacturer, a robotic joint system is completely modular.

As the name infers, robotic joints are ‘mix-and-match’ systems, based around the joint technology system to create custom robotic solutions for a range of applications, and custom designed to fit into a range of spaces. If only a single joint is needed to complete a very simple operation, only the required components are purchased and installed, rather than the all-or-nothing robotic arm.

 While much smaller in size than large scale industrial robots, lightweight robotic arms still average several feet in height, with space requirements for movement of the arm to perform its designated task. In applications where there is a tight space requirement, modular robotic joints can be designed specifically for that space, while still meeting all other application requirements.

Modular joint systems, like the igus robolink system, can be adapted for custom needs as necessary and whenever needed for quick adjustment to the manufacturing facility or process, and using a range of available design, material, and drive options.

Rather than returning to the robotic manufacturer to inquire about software or controller changes and then working around the physical structures’ limitations, modular robotic joint systems can allow for facility operators to create and adapt robotic systems easily and as needed.

For example, a robotic joint with five degrees of freedom is being used to install a single tiny lens into endoscopes, but technology updates require three lenses installed in each, while an adjacent robot installs fibre optic cables, all in the same space on the assembly line.

 While a lightweight robot may have to be expertly programmed and regularly inspected to work in such close proximity, a modular system can be changed physically to better suit this new arrangement. If, for example, a symmetrical robotic joint is already in place, an asymmetric one can be installed alongside, so the individual joints are on opposing sides to minimise the risk of the two systems interfering with one another.

Another solution would be to reduce the reach of one system by eliminating a joint or shortening the body, then extending the reach of the new system, allowing two jobs to be completed in the same space as the initial, less complex task. In addition to allowing for much higher levels of flexibility, modular robotic joints also generally cost less than full robotic systems, as only necessary components are purchased, and manufacturers like igus also offer a range of cost levels.

For an exceptionally light-duty application, the basic system can be purchased instead of using a more expensive system and only utilising a small percentage of its capabilities. All in all, lightweight robotic joint systems are an ideal solution to a wide range of manufacturing challenges across the medical industry. Their modular nature and ability to custom-design an application-specific system allows manufacturers to save costs, maximise space, and increase plant flexibility and performance.