Josh Russell, AST’s Life Science project manager, has been an advocate for advancing aseptic processing through the use of robot technology for years, writing about its benefits and exploring their application in their customer’s solutions. According to Russell, aseptic manufacturing generally entails often repetitive activity that requires a high degree of reproducibility in order to create a high-quality product. He asserts that robots are the ideal platform to perform the highly accurate, repeatable operations demanded by aseptic processing operations. These non-organic automatons have the distinction of being able to operate where no man should or can. “This becomes particularly important in applications that require containment of highly active and potent compounds.” Not only that, but our electromechanical friends won’t ever shed the clouds of particulates humans do because they generate no viable and extremely low levels of non-viable particulates, making them ideal for ISO 5 aseptic environments.
“What we’ve seen in particular is that more robotics’ manufacturers are coming to the table to offer truly viable solutions to this challenge,” says Russell. Most importantly, life science oriented designs that are VHP “proof” are now available. “Staübli Robotics is there – with a complete line of six axis robotic arms compatible with vapor phase hydrogen peroxide decontamination. With Staübli’s wide portfolio of VHP compatible robotic systems solutions providers like AST don’t have to compromise on payload and reach because the system exist for us to provide the optimal solution with our products.” He says suppliers offer robots that can complete the span of automated tasks required by commercial aseptic processing; robotic options for everything from aseptic vial processing to lab automation to freeze dryer loading and unloading applications.
Commercially available robotic automation is well developed and extremely accurate with repetitive pick-and-place maneuvers and precise positioning tasks and Russell agrees. “Absolutely they do, and it’s being expanded. For example, we like to use robotics for manipulating syringes and cartridges. We found that it offers several advantages to that process that just aren’t found in traditional filling lines.” He notes that other companies, like Kawasaki, have introduced a seven-axis, stainless steel VHP compatible robot. “It provides even more flexibility than what we’ve seen in the past,” says Russell. “Other companies have been developing their own robotics for their own solutions. We’ve just seen the market really proliferate with a lot of various options that are geared to meet the challenges within the industry.”
For example, Denso recently announced the introduction of its new compact, high-speed, VS-050 six-axis aseptic robot. It features an ISO 5 cleanroom rating and incorporates specially designed coverings, for applications, says the company, where intensive biocontamination control is required.
Peter Cavallo, robotics sales manager for DENSO Products & Services Americas, explains, “We created the VS-050 aseptic robot because of rapidly increasing demand in the pharmaceutical, medical and life sciences sectors. Now our customers in those areas with sterilization requirements can benefit from the high speed and other outstanding features of the VS Series.”
Denso’s robot offers a protective outer coating and sealed joints that allow the VS-050 to be safely sterilized with hydrogen peroxide or UV light. According to the company, the smooth, rounded exterior of the robot keeps dirt, dust or other contaminants from adhering to its surface. Among other things, Denso internally embeds wires up to the flange and locates the control-cable connector at the bottom of the robot, further streamlining the arm and facilitating cleaning.
Russell says the economics are right and right now. “I would say that integrating the robotics into life-science aseptic applications is very affordable, especially when you take it in the context of not having dedicated automation that would be required to perform the same assembly task or application.” He says that it’s actually even more affordable, especially given the amount of flexibility and adaptability that robots can provide. “There’s less complication. In terms of aseptic manufacturing, they’re easy to clean, easy to program, highly repeatable and reproducible.” He explains that when lines have many isolators, robots can eliminate the ergonomic challenges associated with traditional fill lines if glove ports are not adequately planned prior to isolator integration. “And then you can decontaminate them very, very simply by articulating them during the bio-decontamination process.”
Programmability is advancing, too, and Russell notes that in terms of the systems that AST provides, they go to great measures to make sure that they integrate robotic technologies that truly allow end-users to be able to support and program the equipment on their own.