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Industrial Robots / Robots and COVID-19

Robots Help Fight the Battle Against COVID-19 Pandemic

Four examples by FANUC North America

Apr 08, 2021 — The team of Authorized System Integrators and automation equipment suppliers are working tirelessly with companies that manufacture life-saving products including personal protective equipment (PPE), disinfectants, medical diagnostic equipment, ventilators and many other items used in the fight against the coronavirus.

New and innovative automated systems are also helping companies minimize product handling to create more space on the production floor and meet social distancing requirements.

“We’re extremely proud of the work that our Authorized System Integrators and automation equipment suppliers have done throughout the pandemic,” said Mike Cicco, president and CEO, FANUC America. “We live in unprecedented times that require a rapid response to make protective and life-sustaining products, and minimize person to person contact, and I think everyone involved has answered the call.”

Interactive Design - Lenexa, KS

Robotic System to Line Track, Pick and Package COVID Test Swabs

As COVID testing escalates across the globe, a major producer of test kit swabs needed an automated solution to help meet the increasing demand. Interactive Design quickly engineered and designed a flexible system equipped with multiple machine vision guided FANUC SR-6iA SCARA robots to automatically orient, feed, and load swabs into horizontal form, fill, and seal packaging machines. FANUC iRVision allows the robots to locate the swabs as they are conveyed from the machines that produce them. Depending on the position of swabs on the moving conveyor, each robot accurately picks 75 to 90 swabs per minute.

“Interactive Design’s integration team responded at record speed,” said Nate Maholland, sales manager, Interactive Design. “These systems are going to start hitting the customer’s facility in less than half the time they would under normal conditions. We’re very proud to help at this critical time.”

ESS Technologies – Blacksburg, VA

Flexible Filler/Capper for Vials and Small Bottles

As cases of COVID-19 began to intensify across the U.S., a diagnostics manufacturer reached out to ESS Technologies to build two identical filling systems with automated cap torque for diagnostics vials to be used in manufacturing COVID-19 test kits. Speed and urgency drove the project, which required the system to fill up to 120 vials/min.

Though originally developed for vials used in COVID testing, the machines can be used for applications using vials or small bottles. Available in semi-automatic and fully automated configurations, ESS’ flexible filler/capper uses a circular puck conveyor system to transport vials or small bottles to the inline filling system. A timing screw drive positions six vials beneath the six-up diving nozzle assembly where a precise amount of diagnostic reagent is dispensed. The cap placement is automated using FANUC’s SR-6iA SCARA robots and a cap feeder. A three-up final torque station then applies the precise amount of torque to the caps. The machine uses Allen Bradley PLC controls and a 6 in. color touchscreen HMI for ease of operation. An optional 10 in. HMI is available. The system provides fast changeover - under 10 minutes.

The Flexible Filler/Capper is designed to use a circular puck conveyor system to transport vials or small bottles to the inline filling system. © FANUC America
The Flexible Filler/Capper is designed to use a circular puck conveyor system to transport vials or small bottles to the inline filling system. © FANUC America

In addition to filling and capping COVID test kits, a second diagnostics manufacturer has asked ESS to build several end-of-line packaging systems comprised of 13 robots for collation, cartoning and case packing sterile test kits. ESS has been able to offer fast delivery times for these systems, allowing the manufacturers to ramp up their important production capacity. According to Kevin Browne, president and founder of ESS Technologies, Inc. “Everyone at ESS immediately understood the urgency of building high speed, high performance packaging machinery to increase the manufacture of test kits and prepare for future vaccine packaging. As a critical manufacturer for the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries, ESS worked with suppliers to keep the supply chain flowing, and we were able to deliver two complete systems in just a few weeks.”

PaR Systems - Shoreview, MN

Automated Assembly System for Respirators

A major manufacturer of personal production equipment (PPE) needed to quickly ramp up production of their respirators to aid in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
PaR Systems was able to design and build four robotic dispensing systems in just five weeks. Each system includes a FANUC LR Mate 200iD robot for automated dispensing. Since implementing the system, parts are produced within 25 minutes, just a fraction of the time it took with the previous automation. Now, the customer is able to assemble nearly 20,000 respirators per week.

“I’ve never seen a faster or more seamless delivery. It was truly a collaborative effort between PaR, FANUC, our customers and suppliers - all united to help produce this important equipment towards a cause,” said Jon Sakry, SVP of Operations at PaR Systems. “Our team went from concept to install for the customer in just five weeks! We took advanced measures to ensure the health and safety of our employees and customer teams were not compromised, including working extended hours and weekends to meet deadlines, safely separating testing groups and maintaining safe social distancing measures throughout the entire production process.”

Automated Dispensing System for Medical Respirators © FANUC America
Automated Dispensing System for Medical Respirators © FANUC America

This example underscores PaR’s mission to help manufacturers solve production challenges with automated solutions to get critical supplies to those who need them.

“In my years at PaR, we’ve done some important work including protective equipment for our military personnel, and assisting with the clean-up at various nuclear reactor sites. I count this latest automated system to produce respirators that protect first responders as another very important project, and I’m proud we were able to deliver the system in an extremely quick timeframe,” said Dan Hagen, Business Segment Leader at PaR Systems.

Sealed Air – Charlotte, NC & Soft Robotics – Bedford, MA

Touchless Packaging System

Sealed Air, the originator of the BUBBLE WRAP® brand and CRYOVAC® food packaging technology as well as other sustainable packaging solutions has partnered with Soft Robotics to integrate their respective technology platforms to create an end-to-end packaging system. A key goal of this technology partnership was to minimize person to person contact typically found in order fulfillment applications. The new system uses Soft Robotics’ Superpick 3D piece picking solution that includes a FANUC LR Mate 200iD six-axis robot. The SuperPick system pairs Soft Robotics proprietary vision and software with the company’s patented soft gripper technology to accurately pick variable products from unstructured totes.

Automated Dispensing System for Medical Respirators © FANUC America
Automated Dispensing System for Medical Respirators © FANUC America

The new touchless systems will allow people to social distance, take them out of potentially dangerous areas, and enable them to manage the robotic system versus manually handling the products. It also gives companies dealing with a labor shortage the ability to meet their customers’ growing demands and reallocate their workforce to higher-level tasks.

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