Perking Up Production
Advances in Technology Are Making Custom Automation and Assembly More Popular Than Ever, Even for Smaller Product Runs
Stacey L. Bell
On dark, dreary mornings, when it’s difficult to open your eyes—let alone spring into action to face a busy day—the scent of fresh-brewed coffee, wafting into your bedroom from the automatic coffee maker in the kitchen, can save the day. An automatic coffee maker can make your life just a little easier and help perk you up in the morning. Similarly, by automating manufacturing processes, medical device companies can perk up their productivity and profitability.
“More companies want to automate more processes today,” said Dan Kasprzyk, president and CEO of Machine Solutions, Inc. in Flagstaff, AZ. “People are gearing up for competition. High-value products will come under cost pressures as more companies with similar offerings come into the market.”
Products produced in high volumes or that require a lot of labor are most ripe for automation. The process provides numerous competitive advantages, including allowing for a faster time to market with consistent, high-quality products.
“Improved quality is often the primary benefit that is derived from automation,” noted David James, director of Invetech’s Manufacturing Innovation Group, based in Melbourne, Australia. “Manufacturing processes need to be robust and repeatable, plus enable product traceability. Maintaining this performance level consistently as volumes increase is where the challenge arises.”
To maximize quality, productivity and profits, James continued, medical device companies should work with their automation and assembly partners to identify the best practices employed during a new product’s initial manual assembly phase. These processes then should be automated.
The payoff can be significant. Treasa Springett, president of Donatelle in New Brighton, MN, reported that her company has worked with customers to incorporate value-added processes to components it manufactures. In one case, the “engineering and automation team worked to provide an overall assembly and packaging solution that ultimately improved supply chain lead time by over 50%, improved quality to a nearly zero defect process and saved the customer more than $1 million annually. This entire automation solution was accomplished, from idea conception to full production implementation, in less than 18 weeks,” she said.
Millersburg, PA’s Advanced Scientifics teamed with a customer to develop a two-shot molding application as an alternative to a much more expensive automated format. “In many cases, the challenge is to have an open mind and make certain you understand the end goal need for the program,” advised Carl Martin, Advanced Scientifics’ CEO.
In the past, automation experts have said that companies must produce at least three million pieces annually or assemble four or more parts in two or more processes to justify investing in automation. That rule no longer holds true.
“The old axioms are changing because of new, emerging technologies,” reported Keith Bocchicchio, director of technology for Integrated BioSciences, Inc. (IBS) in Lewisberry, PA. For instance, IBS is automating the production of a product that has an annual run of only 3,000 parts.
“The cost of automation is just one part of the justification equation,” Bocchicchio explained. “You also must consider quality assurance results. This product’s assembly doesn’t lend itself to human intervention, and it can’t be fully tested because the tests are destructive.” By automating and validating the assembly and inspection processes, many products can be manufactured to stringent standards at a higher consistency, with better quality and higher output than can be achieved by manual operations.
While custom automation still can be pricey, better standard tools with increased capabilities and lower costs are more easily obtained today. “Some level of customization occurs in any automation process, but the percentage of reusability is increasing,” Bocchicchio said. “In the past, different ‘generic’ assembly modules were targeted for different types of products, and each had its benefits and compromises. Today, ‘generic’ equipment has more uses and reuses than two to five years ago because of the improvements made in generic automation tools and their increased availability. There are also fewer compromises.”
Automated vision inspection also has seen advances. “The real change in vision inspection technology in recent times has been the affordability and improvement in capability,” James said. “The technology has improved, and the cost of processing data has been reduced, yet you now can buy off-the-shelf systems for less than $10,000 that, 10 years ago, were significantly more expensive and often required considerable additional development effort before they could be used.”
Advances in robotics, pneumatics and manufacturing materials/equipment all have contributed to producing high-quantity runs.
Kahle USA has developed a new chassis design that significantly has increased production speed. Previously, needles could be produced at 500 to 600 parts per minute (ppm); that figure now has skyrocketed to 1,000 ppm.
“The new chassis design has also provided for easier tooling changeover, allowing the customer to increase the number of product configurations the machine can handle. In the past, companies with many different SKUs of a similar product may have had their product manufactured on numerous machines, or each of these SKUs alone may not have justified automation. But the new equipment’s capabilities and flexibility allow for more product configurations to be manufactured on the same machine. It opens the doors for lower-volume products to take advantage of automation,” explained Julie Logothetis, president of Kahle, which is headquartered in Summit, NJ.
New Capabilities Fuel Growth
This year has been good for custom automation and assembly houses, and companies forecast a positive 2008 as well. Experts cited growth rates from the high teens to nearly 50% year over year. While some companies reported that their growth resulted from increased volume in current jobs, others said they are seeing higher volumes as well as new projects.
In the latter category is Machine Solutions, which has made a business of automating formerly manual processes. For years the company has offered automated crimping, bonding, laminating, coining, thermoforming, coating, and pleating and folding of balloon catheters. In 2007, it introduced a swaging industrial process for marker bands. “We’ve eliminated the manual inspection step,” Kasprzyk explained. “By adding PC control and smart vision systems, we can teach the vision system what to find and position. For example, we can program it to position two bands 38-mm apart and reduce the diameter to .021 inch. It then checks its work to the programmed specification and eliminates the secondary inspection step.”
Greg Miller, director of engineering for Machine Solutions, added, “Before, it took more than 120 seconds to complete this process, and now it takes 75 seconds.” Over the course of a full production run, those seconds add up dramatically.
Later this year or in early 2008, the company plans to introduce additional automated solutions for balloon blowing and spray coating.
Another area fueling growth is product testing. “We’re providing more help upfront in the R&D phase,” Miller said. “From material selections to developing designs to expansion forces, we’re helping with design decisions before customers are too far along the clinical path. By designing for optimal manufacturability, they can avoid making changes 12 months into the process, when it’s more costly.”
Certainly, early involvement by an outsourcing partner can allow for a much faster market debut—and fewer headaches. “It’s pretty common to work with customers from the very beginning of a product’s design to ensure it is as easy to manufacture as possible,” Logothetis said. “It’s absolutely a partnership between customer and automation company.”
That said, Logothetis warned, customers shouldn’t expect automation to make up for product design flaws. “There’s an expectation that automation equipment can correct all manufacturing issues. That’s just not the case,” she said. “No machine can compensate for inherent problems in the product design.”
Many automation and assembly companies offer design and engineering assistance, and customers are clamoring for additional services. From design and development services to sterilization and packaging, and even distribution, more automation and assembly partners are providing a full portfolio of capabilities so that customers can concentrate on their core competencies.
Further, outsourcing partners are developing new technologies and applications to ease the automation process for OEMs. During the past year, Advanced Scientifics has developed a new sealing technology for sealing foils and films to molded components. The advancement allows for the cutting and placing of material with perfect registration onto a part and then sealing it in the same cycle, Martin said. Thus, the technology saves not only development time and cost, but also lowers automation expenses. “Contract manufacturers must continue to look for new and novel ways to lower costs if we are going to compete with offshore [companies],” Martin noted.
Robotics Are Becoming the Rave
In the first quarter of 2007, orders for robotic systems for use in the life sciences / pharmaceuticals / biomedical sector grew by 48% over the same timeframe in 2006, according to the Robotic Industries Association’s latest data available at press time.
What accounts for the dramatic growth? “Increasing demands for higher throughput, process validation and traceability are driving more and more contract manufacturers to re-evaluate robots and the flexibility they offer in being able to assemble many different kinds of products through relatively simple programmatic changes,” said Craig Tomita, director of the medical product business, North America for Adept Technology, Inc. in Livermore, CA.
Indeed, Tomita added, improvements in supporting technologies have helped to make robots much “smarter” overall than their counterparts of 10, or even five, years ago. Take, for instance, machine vision technology. Vision capability allows robots to inspect parts, verify assembly, “read” barcodes or 2-D data matrix codes on parts and distinguish among different parts based on color. In addition, higher processor speeds of both vision systems and robot controllers—as well as improvements in robot mechanisms themselves—have boosted how quickly parts can be removed from a moving conveyor belt. Adept Technology’s new parallel robot, Quattro, can pick items off of a moving conveyor belt at a speed that is 15%-20% faster than its predecessors could.
Among the companies using robotic solutions is IBS. In September, the company debuted its integration of Adept’s Cobra i600 SCARA robots with IBS’s modular assembly systems. The robots offer several benefits, Bocchicchio said.
First, is speed. “Our target manufacturing rate was 35 million to 50 million pieces per unit per year. Products will be completed 10 to 15 times faster than they were previously,” Bocchicchio explained.
Flexibility also was key. Like many manufacturers, IBS produces many different products and wanted a system that provided for changing process flow and fast changeovers. The newest generation of robots integrates easily with other software solutions.
Finally, floor space and cleanliness were concerns. The overhead for clean room floor space is pricey, and the iCobra is the only robot on the market with a controller embedded in the machine’s base. This compact design dramatically reduces the amount of floor space required. While the IBS-designed modular robotic manufacturing cell measures only 4 ft. by 10 ft., it can provide up to eight robots per cell and can accommodate more than 20 manufacturing and assembly tasks.
Donatelle also has incorporated robotics and has found this technology puts automation more within reach of customers with smaller production runs. “We’ve focused on building flexible automation cells that can either handle multiple similar parts or can be easily configured for different parts,” said Dana Schramm, vice president of engineering. “This allows the automation costs to be spread across multiple parts instead of relying on one high-volume part to justify the expense.” The company has installed both dedicated and flexible robotic automation cells during the past year.
“Donatelle has implemented multi-axis robots to improve manufacturing process efficiencies,” added Brian Woolery, technical services manager. “Automation can provide an overall more predictable and consistent process, lending itself to efficiencies throughout the manufacturing process. This includes material handling, quality, cleanliness and, ultimately, if done properly, improved overall material flow, which, in the end, results in improved customer satisfaction.”
Of course, these efficiencies more frequently are being called for in the manufacture of increasingly tiny products. “One challenge we face is fully automating a process around smaller and smaller—even micro-sized—components and devices,” Woolery said. “Engineering, automation and fixturing that will ensure capable and consistent measurement and product quality verification can sometimes be challenging in these applications.”
Tomita noted that robotics soon may offer solutions for this challenge. “One of the most exciting areas in robotics will involve nanotechnology, which is allowing robots to shrink in size and achieve nanometer-level positional accuracy. I think that technology such as piezo ceramics will play a very big role in this area,” he said.
A Positive Outlook
Earlier this decade, most machine builders were facing tough times due to decreased domestic manufacturing. With continuing advances in machinery and other technologies, as well as surging demand for medical devices from the population at-large, the future now looks brighter for automation and assembly companies.
“We’re seeing a substantial increase in demand,” Bocchicchio said. “Innovation in medical devices has driven development of a lot of new technology and a lot of consumer demand. Many of these devices realistically can’t be assembled by hand in large quantities. Companies can start with human labor, but ultimately, to meet the demands of the medical device market, your manufacturing capabilities will require automation at some point.”