Trends in Automation in Healthcare

In a recent issue of Healthcare Packaging, Contributing Editor and On The Edge blogger Keith Campbell shared his thoughts on what the future of automation for healthcare manufacturers might look like.

Here are just a few of his insightful observations.

•It is a widely held belief that the pharmaceutical and medical device industries lag behind other industries in their application of automation…As with all generalizations, there are certainly exceptions to the rule. Many pharmaceutical packaging lines are every bit as automated as the best consumer packaged goods (CPG) lines. There are some fine examples of the application of mechatronics in machines from the likes of PharmaWorks or the Marchesini Group. Advances in tamper-evident packaging flowed from the pharmaceutical industry to the food industry, driven by urgent need. Advances in serialization will likely flow in the same way.

•Nano-manufacturing will bring new materials to bear on old products, open up potential new products based upon new material properties, and usher in a whole new device segment of nano-machines. Automation will not be an option with nano-manufacturing.

•Regulation is a huge distinguishing factor for a healthcare plant. Automated systems are more complex than manual systems. As a result, they have been more difficult to validate, adding to time and cost. Increased application of international standards, improved physical design, better software development methodologies, and experience will all tend to mitigate these differences going forward, making automation more doable for pharmaceuticals and devices. Increased information handling demands and increased liability risks will make automation more necessary and justifiable.

•When regulation is absent but anticipated, it leads to uncertainty. Uncertainty is the enemy of investment. Manufacturers do not invest when things are uncertain because returns are unpredictable. Industry in general has been holding back on investment due to uncertainty in the economy. This uncertainty has been magnified for pharmaceutical companies by proposed serialization regulations and for medical device companies by new taxes adopted with the Affordable Care Act. Once all of this becomes clear and stable, there may be a pent-up demand for automation in healthcare manufacturing that will relieve itself through the coming decade.

•It is important that we don't constrain our thinking of the next 10 years to what may or may not take place within our manufacturing plants based upon what we see taking place now. ?Manufacturing is being reinvented by the Internet of things (IoT), where services allow interaction with "smart objects" over the Internet and where physical objects can become active participants in business processes, taking into account security and privacy issues.

•The future of automation for healthcare manufacturers is huge, both in the way we have historically thought of it and in ways that we are yet to think of. If healthcare manufacturers are a bit behind others, it is probably for valid and explainable reasons to which valid and explainable solutions exist. Identifying those solutions will be a priority for some. There may be some ground to make up, but more than that, there are new opportunities that will affect all of us, because of the changing landscape being driven by computers, the Internet, additive manufacturing, nano-manufacturing, collaborative robotics, and the Internet of things.

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