To accomplish this, they are perfecting existing automation processes and creating innovative new ones, such as continuous processing, additive (or 3D) printing and vision system technology, all of which have become more available within the last five years.
In the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, automation has given pharma manufacturers an opportunity to improve quality, because it helps reduce errors, says Maria Crowe, president of Eli Lilly & Co.’s manufacturing operations. The ability to electronically check the process from beginning to end ensures quality.
For example, “the electronic checkpoints ensure that the right tablets and label information are being put into the correct packaging,” Crowe says. Another example is serialization—or ‘track and trace’—that allows the company and the government to trace a package through the supply chain to reduce the risk that the patient receives a counterfeit or wrong medicine.
Just like a cookbook recipe, Crowe says pharma manufacturing follows a step-by-step process, which is now completely automated. This frees up resources for other responsibilities, such as making process improvements or making more product. Automation also enables a paperless system, which allows for easier and faster access to data when needed.
“Machine operators even provide electronic signatures,” she says.
Continuous processing has become more popular than batch processing in pharma because it speeds up research and development of a product, enables clinical development studies to be conducted quickly, and provides the flexibility to adjust commercial batch sizes based on market demands, Crowe says.
“Some of the technologies available today reduce the manufacturing footprint, so we need less square footage to produce the same amount of products,” Crowe says. And, she says, with everything being connected, “we don’t have to stop between steps.”
For engine maker Cummins Inc. in Columbus, Ind. 3D printing technology has reduced lead times for prototypes, which has “shortened the product development process,” Woszczynski says. And with regard to tooling, “they can be custom made at low cost with a short lead time.”
With 3D printing, Woszczynski explains, “you are creating a part in almost its exact form, so the amount of energy and material waste is reduced.”
Cummins is also leveraging innovative vision system technology, such as that being used in the latest television and camera products, he says. “We’re using them in virtual inspections because they can find more detail than humans, and that has helped us really improve quality over time,” Woszczynski says. “We have totally eliminated some defects with vision systems.”
Clearly manufacturing is on the cutting-edge of some great innovative ideas right now, and the next few months should help turn the sluggish manufacturing sector forward toward a more profitable growth and exciting new inventions.