Tips on how you can reduce costs and time in all project phases – from machine design to building and testing of equipment, from shipping to installation and throughout the life of the production equipment.
Rich Hansen, Senior Automation Engineer at Bosch Rexroth Corporation
Manufacturers in the medical industry face unique challenges in terms of product mix, throughput requirements, quality standards, and regulatory guidelines. Whether a company is producing diagnostic equipment for cancer screening, disposable devices such as syringes, or implantable devices such as stents for cardiac procedures, the manufacturing process must be absolutely error-free while delivering high throughput. To achieve these seemingly competing goals, companies are investing more in factory automation. And with the rise of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT), medical device and equipment manufacturers are finding that implementing automation in their operations not only improves throughput and quality but provides other benefits as well.
Integrating automation and information technology
Medical device and equipment manufacturers demand more automation not only of individual processes, but also of entire factories to help them meet strict quality requirements mandated by the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and other government agencies. This means automation of the complete manufacturing and handling value chain, including product testing, inspection, packaging, and storage and retrieval.
Just mentioning automation typically triggers visions of manufacturing plant floors filled with robots and machinery. However, the future of automation also applies to the “behind the scenes” functions of data collection and manipulation. For example, when the FDA requires documentation of machine parameters and deviations on a part-by-part basis, automated data collection allows the manufacturing parameters to be collected and stored automatically, as well as written to files tied to individual serial numbers, providing the required part-by-part verification.
The key to achieving these goals, however, is not simply a matter of adopting more automation. It lies with the core principle of Industry 4.0, which is to combine automation and IT (information technology).
Industry 4.0 initiatives drive openness and ease of use
One example of a solution that makes this connection between automation and IT is the Open Core Engineering platform, which combines software tools, functional toolkits, open standards, and Open Core Interface technology.
The Open Core Interface allows programmers and operators to use a familiar software platform – such as National Instruments’ LabVIEW, Java, or CATIA – to control the machine, eliminating the need to learn ladder logic or other programming language. The platform includes Software Development Kits (SDKs) that can be used, for example, in Excel’s VBA to create a user interface for controlling a motion axis. Then the axis can be run directly from Excel, or the program can be pushed from Excel to a PLC.
In smaller medical laboratories, where technicians work directly with the automation systems, it’s often necessary for them to make changes to programs, test points, and other machine parameters specific to the sample being tested. The Open Core Interface allows the machine builder or end user to create an interface that provides technicians with access to certain levels of machine control to customize or change the operation. Once the interface is created, a simple handheld tablet with Excel can transfer the interface to a PLC. This is an alternative to machine-grade HMI. In addition, the interface offers portability, wi-fi connectivity, and Bluetooth already built-in.
Machine interfaces are also the root of data collection, but the true benefit of Industry 4.0 is found in how that data are used – for part tracking, error reduction, or process stability – all of which play a critical role in the manufacture of medical devices and equipment. The controller, or IoT gateway, is at the heart of many solutions for Industry 4.0, allowing a user to capture data and broadcast or use that data in a manner that helps them improve quality, reduce turnaround times, and meet regulatory requirements. Software such as ActiveCockpit serves as an interactive communication platform that processes and visualizes production data in real time, easily connecting with back-end MES or ERP systems, allowing rapid diagnosis and optimization of machines and processes.
For example, Open Core Engineering principles are used with EFC variable frequency drives, which include networking capabilities for remote control and monitoring. When used with VarioFlow plus conveyor systems, users have easy access to the machine through wireless or Bluetooth connectivity. Such connectivity allows an operator to adjust speeds, inspect diagnostic codes, view machine parameters, or take any action deemed acceptable according to their clearance level – without ever opening an electrical enclosure or summoning the engineering department for support. Similarly, maintenance personnel can be alerted to problems with email or text messages and receive diagnostic codes without having to travel to the machine and connect to it.
Of course, the security of data gathered, stored, and shared through IoT and Industry 4.0 applications is a significant concern in medical device manufacturing and diagnostic industries. The more data made available, the more opportunities there are for the information to be used inappropriately. It’s unavoidable that any time there is an IoT gateway on a machine, there is a risk of leaks or hacks. Security is the biggest hurdle to complete adoption and integration of Industry 4.0 principles, so users and machine builders need to understand the risks and how they can be mitigated or reduced. Look for cloud-based apps that use certificate authentication, and an external industrial VPN is recommended for secure remote access.
Capitalizing on the benefits of Industry 4.0
The scale of capital investment required for automation in medical device and diagnostic equipment manufacturing, together with the critical nature of the products and processes, place tough demands on suppliers for robustness, accuracy, and interoperability of the parts and systems used in automation and Industry 4.0 initiatives.
As Industry 4.0 and IoT projects expand their reach across the manufacturing floor, products that were once seen as commodities – such as linear guides, ball screws, and sensors – will become key enablers of advanced functions, including real-time monitoring, predictive and preventive maintenance, and part tracking. Combining traditional automation with advanced sensing technologies, such as the XDK sensor box, which is a turnkey kit that provides instant IoT connectivity for devices or machines, is just one example of this type of integration.
Manufacturers of medical devices and diagnostic equipment are relying more and more on automation to ensure a fully robust process to meet regulatory requirements. Complete automation solutions require ease of use and interoperability. Fortunately, vendors such as Bosch Rexroth have designed products and systems with the integration of automation and IT as a core principle, allowing customers to fully embrace and capitalize on the benefits that Industry 4.0 can provide.
“Industrie 4.0 – What Is It?,” Germany Trade and Invest, https://www.gtai.de/GTAI/Navigation/EN/Invest/Industries/Industrie-4-0/ Industrie-4-0/industrie-4-0-what-is-it.html
Cornelius Baur and Dominik Wee, “Manufacturing’s next act,” McKinsey & Company, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/ operations/our-insights/manufacturings-next-act