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Manufacturing Goes ‘Robotic’

Instead of replacing humans, robots help Puerto Rico manufacturing operations boost productivity and compete with low labor cost countries. They also free employees to perform other tasks.


February 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Nuts about robots: High tech industries embrace robotics with passion–and save jobs

A robot gathers up a sample of a chemical compound. It weighs it, dissolves it, and records the results. It then passes the sample to the high-pressure liquid chromatography system for further analysis. The sample is never touched by human hands.

This is not the story line of a sci-fi flick, but a description of a chemical analysis process that takes place at a pharmaceutical plant in Puerto Rico every day.

Pharmaceutical–and petrochemical and electronics–plants are nuts about robots. And the future of these human-helpers–and the manufacturing companies that employ them–looks bright.

Robots have been used in manufacturing in Puerto Rico since the late 1980s. They were first used as components of automated systems of valves and pumps. Although they run unattended, automated systems differ from robots in that they have no articulated arms.

The pharmaceutical sector in Puerto Rico has probably benefited most from the development and implementation of a gamut of automated and robotic processes. These perform highly technical analytical sampling of chemical products.

An example is the high-pressure liquid chromatography system (HPLC) used by companies in the pharmaceutical industry to separate, quantify, and analyze chemical compounds. HPLCs are also used in biotechnology, biomedical, and biochemical research laboratories as well as industrial, university, government research & development, quality assurance, and environmental testing laboratories.

"In 1979, there were only three HPLCs in Puerto Rico being used by petrochemical companies. Today about 80 companies own more than 1,000 units," said Sergio Ayala Lamboy, general manager of Waters Technologies Corp. in Puerto Rico, a Massachusetts-based global supplier of HPLCs. Depending on the complexity of the system, each HPLC may cost between $25,000 and $50,000 per unit.

HPLCs are not considered robots but rather part of an automation process that paved the way for them. Robots, such as those built by Zymark Corp., enhance the automation process.

What is a robot?

The Robot Institute of America (RIA) defines a robot as "a programmable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move materials, parts, tools, or special devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks."

To some people, robots are meant to be like C3PO and R2D2, the popular Star Wars characters. Others may think of last Christmas season’s most popular robotic toy, Poo-Chi the Interactive Puppy, that did tricks upon hearing certain words or sounds.

Still others could visualize a kind of humanoid that makes lightning fast mathematical calculations and exhibits high levels of intelligence–albeit artificial intelligence, or AI, as it is now popularly called.

The fact is that the introduction of the first robot in a U.S. General Motors plant in 1961 revolutionized the manufacturing industry. Based on RIA’s sales forecast for 2000, North American robot sales totaled $1.3 billion, averaging $83,000 per unit. By 2002, new robot sales in the U.S. may reach 16,000 units. Worldwide, new robot sales could be 100,000 units, with the U.S. in second place after Japan’s 43,000 units. (See Table)

"A robot imitates human dexterity. Some laboratory robots have articulated arms that literally move samples from process to process. In the case of HPLCs, our robot workstation is connected to the system," said Luis Pacheco, Zymark’s account manager for Puerto Rico.

Pacheco described a typical process in which a robot is used for chemical analysis. The robot weighs and dissolves the compound and records the results. It then passes the sample to the HPLC system for further analysis, he explained.

"What is important about this process is that it runs unattended. A robot does not supplant a laboratory technician, but rather frees him or her to perform data analysis. Some laboratory tests may take up to 12 hours. Other tests involve repetitive processes or movements. Robots are labor intensive and will prevent lesions [and other health problems] that result from repetitive movements [for humans]," he added.

Robots in the pharmaceutical industry

One of Waters and Zymark’s clients is IPR Pharmaceuticals Inc., a subsidiary of British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. CARIBBEAN BUSINESS had an opportunity to visit IPR’s manufacturing plant in Guayama, where they produce active ingredients for their brand-name pharmaceutical drugs Zestril, Tenormin, and Zomig. They are currently adding two new pharmaceutical drugs to their product line, called Casodex and Faslodex.

"Our industry lends itself to automation, particularly for chemical and pharmaceutical processes and the manufacturing of active ingredients and tablets. While such factors as temperature, pressure, and velocity are supervised by operators from a control point, robots allow them to take minimum action in the process," said Dr. Henry Jackson, IPR quality assurance manager.

Automation was already in place at IPR in the form of HPLCs when robotics were introduced in 1999. "We immediately saw the value of using robots in quality control operations such as chemical analysis because of the sheer number of tests (sometimes over 100) that need to be run. It is a very tedious and repetitive process for a laboratory technician."

Robots free chemists from repetitive processes so they can engage in more creative endeavors, such as analyzing data. "The person is in a thinking mode (analyzing) rather than a doing mode (handling samples)," Jackson explained.

Also, robots don’t get tired, rarely make mistakes, can be reproduced and tend to bring more efficiency to the process. "They work for longer periods of time and as a result the final product reaches the market earlier. This allows the company to reduce its inventory which, in the long run, is more cost-effective," he added.

The Zymark Tablet Processing Workstation (TPW) robot that IPR uses during its chemical analysis process performs varied tasks. It is one of only 21 robots found in Puerto Rico. After the sample is placed in the robot, it can measure the potency of tablets and chemical compounds. Another kind of analysis is a dissolution test, where the robot aspirates, or inhales, a dissolved chemical and records its findings.

The TPW robot can also verify content uniformity, where samples from millions of tablet lots are tested to make sure they have accurate amounts of chemicals. These three tests are followed by running the sample through the HPLC.

"Response from laboratory personnel has been very positive. The use of the robot relieves them from spending time running tests vs. reviewing analytical operations. Now they can improve systems and propose new ideas," Jackson said.

Robots have also generated new kinds of activities for their staff, he added. "Chemists need to be included in the design of these robots, including the test and validation phases. The intellectual component of the robot comes from the chemist. And when the machine fails, it is the operator who takes control."

Lourdes De Cardenas, manager of regulatory affairs and systems for IPR said the company’s investment in automation and robots for its three plants in Puerto Rico (Carolina, Guayama, and a new facility in Canovanas) is ***. "We have more than 50 HPLCs, averaging $35,000 to $50,000 each, in addition to other gas, ultraviolet, and infrared chromatography systems valued between $20,000 to $40,000. In addition, there are *** robots which cost between $80,000 to $100,000 each."

Robots in the electronics sector

Another manufacturing industry in Puerto Rico using robots in its production efforts is the electrical and electronic sector. Hewlett-Packard Puerto Rico’s Pen Technology and Manufacturing Center in Aguadilla has implemented the use of robot technology as a complement to the production process.

"Our Inkjet Supplies operation in Aguadilla has manufactured inkjet cartridges for Hewlett-Packard’s Deskjet division since 1983. At the time, almost 50% was manual labor intensive since we were developing and manufacturing the product simultaneously. By 1995, global demand for Hewlett-Packard inkjet cartridges grew and we began looking into production automation," said Jimmy Orengo, manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Pen Technology and Manufacturing Center.

A group of Puerto Rican engineers initially developed a product line that tripled output, reduced costs fourfold, required half the standard manufacturing area, and improved both the quality and color of their inkjet product, he noted.

"Nowadays, robots handle about 75% of our inkjet cartridge production. Employees with manual skills have been retrained as production robot operators. They carefully monitor production and critical parameters on which to base any actions," he said.

The company’s technical staff had to be retrained to acquire more sophisticated technical knowledge on a par with the development of robots, and their increasing production output. "During this process, an effort has been made to retrain and relocate each employee in other areas as the needs of the company increase," said Orengo.

Hewlett-Packard has developed programs to encourage employee growth. The Inkjet division, which has about 1,250 permanent employees and nearly 400 temporary employees, has training and advanced-education budgets. The company also rewards employees for submitting ideas that lead to improvements, in such areas as production, quality and safety.

This month, Hewlett-Packard’s Inkjet division will finalize two contracts with local companies that will take over 75% of the dry loop inkjet cartridge manufacturing production process.

"This allows us to concentrate on our core competencies," Orengo explained. "It will also provide space for us to add product lines that will increase volume [output] and for product development. In Hewlett-Packard Puerto Rico we use the automation process as a cost [control] tool."

This also gives employees the chance to develop and implement greater skills, only using manual procedures to enhance their knowledge.

Robots in history

In the 1970s, the manufacturing industry worldwide began a transition towards automation and using robots as a means of streamlining labor costs and improving productivity among its technical labor force.

By 1999, there were approximately 742,500 robots working in most sectors of the global manufacturing industry. The top three users were Japan with 402,200 units; the U.S. with 92,900 units; and Germany with 81,200 units.

By 2003, experts forecast that the number of robots worldwide will increase by 16% to 862,000, with an expected growth in robots for the service sector that perform domestic, underwater, medical, and cleaning tasks.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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