6-axis robots for injection molding in medical device manufacturing

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Industrial robots, such as Shibaura Machine’s TVM line, will be key to manufacturing tomorrow’s medical devices with the highest quality. [Image courtesy of TM Robotics]

Could robotic injection molding support the manufacture of the approximately 2 million different types of medical devices on the market?

Nigel Smith, TM Robotics

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in demand for medical devices in hospitals and medical laboratories, and business analyst Mercer Capital expects this growth to continue. Its report Five Trends to Watch in the Medical Device Industry cites several driving factors, including a growing aging population, emerging economies, and government efforts to rein in rising medical costs.

Due to the nature of the industry, companies that develop devices that are first to market can benefit from patents, intellectual property protection and competitive advantages. However, these new devices are subject to strict regulations. As written in The Changing Economics of Medical Technology, an article by The National Academy of Medicine in the United States (published when it was still called the institute of medicine): “It is inevitable that important products such as medical devices will come under scrutiny on many levels due to the enormous social costs and benefits associated with health care.”

Much of this review is aimed at manufacturers and relates to liability, device traceability, post-market surveillance, clinical evaluations and performance studies. All must be considered in new medical designs and developments. To quote the Mercer Capital report, the rules promote “an environment in which companies can achieve an acceptable level of return on their R&D investments”.

To comply with these regulations, medical device manufacturers must seek new ways to efficiently produce new innovations without violating quality system regulations, such as current Good Manufacturing Practices specified by the FDA. An efficient and quality-conscious production method is injection molding, one of the most common manufacturing processes in the industry.

Injection molding machines are already used to produce monitoring devices, infusion pumps and other life-saving medical equipment. But there is a desire to manufacture these devices with new and more advanced materials, and with better mold flow and higher impact strength. This includes bioplastics, a greener alternative to plastics. Made from corn, sugar cane or sugar beets, bioplastics are increasingly being used to manufacture medical devices.

Additionally, there is growing pressure to produce medical devices at a faster rate. Both large and small production runs must operate continuously to produce a certain number of products per hour. The standards ensure the predictable and efficient loading and unloading of moulds, as well as smooth working between people and machines. To achieve this, automation and robotics are crucial.

New ways of doing

Industrial robots already play a crucial role in the loading and unloading applications of plastic injection molding machines. Six-axis robots in particular, in addition to being among the most widely used industrial machines in general, have become the trusted workhorse of injection molding loading and unloading.

TM Robotics, partner of Shibaura Machine (formerly known as Toshiba Machine) is a robot distributor specializing in the integration of robots with injection molding devices. The company has recently expanded its range to offer an even more complete choice of six-axis robots suitable for these applications.

Shibaura Machine’s vertically articulated 6-axis robot series comes in three models, all of which offer low headroom, wider reach, and other benefits. Each robot line has varying reach and payload specifications, and longer arm length compared to previous robot lines.

This includes the brand new TVM range of highly productive and reliable robots for industries such as automotive, medical, packaging and pharmaceuticals. The largest of the TVM models is the TVM1500, which offers a maximum reach of 1715mm. The TVM1200 can reach up to 1418mm and the smallest model, the TVM900, offers a maximum reach of 1124mm. In addition to three distinct arm lengths, the operating range of each model can be extended by mounting the robot on an optional linear actuator.

Better integration

Above all, these robots easily integrate with Shibaura Machine’s injection molding machines. Among the newest equipment is the SXIII range of injection molding machines, an all-electric range with improved performance designed to deliver significantly faster injection speeds than traditional molding equipment.

When paired with a fast-cycling 6-axis robot for loading and unloading, manufacturers can expect increased throughput. These machines are built for increased versatility and performance, with a sleek design. With these features, the range can support significantly faster loading and unloading speeds.

The robots are also designed for plug-and-play installation for easier programming by operators and reduced training costs. The end result is better collaboration between machines and operators on injection molding lines, and industrial robots that fit more easily into a manufacturer’s established ways of doing things.

Extensive automation will be crucial in ensuring that injection molding is essential to manufacturing tomorrow’s medical devices cost-effectively and of the highest quality. Even with stringent regulations, industrial robots like the TVM line can help manufacturers find new and better ways to bring new medical innovations to market, supporting a bright future for patient care.

Nigel Smith is the CEO of industrial robot specialist TM Robotics. TM Robotics has installed thousands of robots in factories around the world and, in partnership with Shibaura Machine, is the only company to offer a full range of all three categories of robots: 6-axis, SCARA and Cartesian.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of MedicalDesignandOutsourcing.com or its employees.

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