Automated Machine Tending Improves Medical Manufacturing

While all manufacturers need to improve efficiency and cut costs to remain competitive, the stakes are higher for medical manufacturers as they also need to maintain tighter manufacturing tolerances and adhere to stricter regulations regarding sterility, safety and consistency. Automated machine tending can help medical manufacturers tick all the necessary boxes while also boosting speed and efficiency of process. 

Understanding the Medical Manufacturing Requirements

Medical devices are an essential part of the healthcare system and cover a range of products from Band-Aids to syringes to tubing to dental instruments to ventilators to pacemakers. Because medical devices are used in the treatment of patients, the manufacturing process is overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While the level of regulatory involvement varies by the classification of each device with the most stringent action being required for Class 3 devices that sustain or support human life, all medical devices must meet the FDA’s Quality System Regulation (QSR, essentially good manufacturing practices for medical manufacturers). FDA’s QSR mandates that every step from assembly to machine tending to packaging must be performed in a way that consistently meets specifications regarding safety, sterility, consistency and precision. More detailed information on the steps involved can be found on the FDA’s website.

Automation excels at ensuring that manufacturing of any object – but especially medical devices – is carried out with consistency and precision and can help achieve higher levels of sterility because less human involvement is required, increasing quality and reducing the risk of contamination. One of the newest applications of automation in medical device manufacturing involves automated machine tending as it boosts accuracy, consistency and precision while also enhancing efficiency and quality and reducing costs. 

Automated Machine Tending Benefits Medical Manufacturers 

When handled manually, machine tending is not only a labor-intensive and time-consuming part of the production process, but it is also boring and repetitive as machine tending involves loading raw materials, starting a production cycle, unloading completed parts and finishing parts with steps that may include cleaning, deburring, sanding, etc. Machine tending robots (typically collaborative robots) are able to easily change from one step to the next and often include adaptable programming and superior precision, allowing them to seamlessly handle complex machine tending operations with high levels of efficiency and accuracy. 

And, the higher levels of efficiency, consistency and accuracy, along with removal of the human element, provide many benefits for medical device manufacturers. First, automating machine tending tasks will significantly increase efficiency, productivity and throughput because robots and cobots are capable of doing these activities at higher speeds than manual laborers, without breaks and without risking repetitive motion injuries, which are common in machine tending positions. 

Because automation can be programmed to replicate the performance of machine tending tasks such as loading, unloading, sanding, grinding and deburring in the same manner every time, it will also provide consistency and precision in the manufacturing process, which is essential to compliance with QSRs for medical manufacturing. 

In addition to helping medical device manufacturers meet QSR requirements, the consistency and precision presented by automation will also help boost product quality, ensuring that every device produced meets industry specifications as human error will be eliminated. 

Sterility, too, will be improved with the use of machine tending robots, as they do not run as high a risk of contaminating products. Robots do not stop to eat, take bathroom breaks or leave/enter the sterile manufacturing environment the way that human workers do, reducing the chances of introducing contaminants into the process or workspace. 

Facility safety will also see an improvement. Automation helps eliminate the risk of injury to human workers caused by the repetitive bending, lifting and twisting motions associated with machine tending, as well as risks associated with tending injection molding machines, cutting machines or other medical device manufacturing equipment. In addition, many of the machine tending steps in medical manufacturing involve handling hot, sharp or fragile parts, which can result in injuries to human employees, but machine tending robots cannot be harmed by these activities, vastly improving the safety record of the facility and reducing costs associated with worker’s compensation claims and sick time. 

Automated machine tending will also help optimize medical device manufacturing by increasing speed and efficiency, which boosts throughput and reduces the cost of labor. Further, as quality is likely to improve thanks to the accuracy, consistency, precision and sterility provided by automation, there will be fewer faulty parts, helping to ensure that stringent guidelines are met and slashing costs associated with material waste, scrap and damaged product. 

Machine Tending Applications for Medical Manufacturers 

Generally speaking, machine tending robots are most often used on computer numerical control (CNC) machines, mills and presses, but can also be applied to tending injection molding machines and operating the associated finishing equipment. In medical manufacturing, machine tending automation can be used for these same applications as CNC machines and injection molding equipment are common equipment for this industry. Some unique medical device machine tending tasks include: 

  • Loading and unloading fragile glass tubes and lab equipment. 
  • Milling or grinding dental instruments, crowns or implants. 
  • Fabricating, finishing, milling, sharpening, deburring and grinding of sharps, such as needles, which are delicate, but also potentially dangerous for human handling. 
  • Cleaning and deburring in-process parts or components to be used within medical devices. 
  • Removing flash from molded medical components or devices. 
  • Loading and unloading blank stainless tubes for cutting to achieve various lengths, diameters and thicknesses, lending flexibility, as well as efficiency to a single laser cutting machine. 
  • Tending injection molding machines that produce heat-sensitive components for medical devices. 
  • Punching, bending or milling medical device components. 
  • Loading packaging, trays or lids to heat-sealing machines and then removing sealed packages from the machine, ensuring sterility. 

While the applications for automated machine tending vary widely within the medical device manufacturing industry, applying machine tending robots to any process can help medical manufactures improve the efficiency, quality, sterility and consistency, ensuring compliance with FDA’s strict regulations. Find out more today by contacting a representative at JHFOSTER