Robotics and automation specialists are supporting the fight against the corona pandemic 2ith innovative approaches. Robots help to carry out corona tests and evaluate them in the laboratory as well as automate the production of medical and protective equipment. In addition, hundreds of thousands of urgently needed face masks are produced every day on automated assembly systems. A look at actual practice:
While the corona pandemic has created some production standstill, there are also companies that urgently need to increase their manufacturing capacity, for example, because materials for corona tests and protective equipment such as face masks are produced. In this field, automated production processes and automation technologies help to achieve quantities that would not be possible in manual production – especially with the currently valid distancing rules and contact restrictions.
Automated solutions can also relieve and protect people when carrying out corona tests or during subsequent laboratory work, because technology and not humans are in direct contact with potentially corona-infected people. The automation specialists have come up with some ideas, which Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the VDMA trade association Robotics + Automation, is very pleased about: “The helpfulness and creativity of the companies has overwhelmed us,” Mr. Schwarzkopf stated enthusiastically. “Initiatives and new ideas are coming from all sides to use automation technology to tackle the corona crisis. Companies are working at breathtaking speed, and we’re feeling the great innovative spirit of startups firsthand.”
One of these ideas in addition to “social distancing” is how “industrial approaching” can also contribute to the containment of the corona virus, an idea that comes from Dorfprozelten in Lower Franconia. BoKa Automatisierung has developed a robot cell there to make the automated processing of corona tests in a drive-through procedure faster and safer. Instead of healthcare professionals, a video system and a Fanuc robot are used to provide test instructions and collect samples.
The driver identifies himself through the side window of his vehicle via a tablet, and a Fanuc LR-Mate robot gives him a test tube. A video tutorial explains how the sampling works. “To ensure that each test is usable, the sampling can be monitored by a medically trained person via camera transmission,” Severin Bobon explained, co-owner of BoKa Automation. Then the robot takes back the used test tube and stores it until it is transported to the laboratory.
The tests are allocated via barcodes on the individual tubes. Each test person must scan his or her ID card at the beginning, so that the robot can allocate the data to the respective test. Since the system is designed for two people at the same time, approx. 500 samples could be collected in a contactless and automated manner per day and system – and this in 24-hour continuous operation. In comparison: drive-in test stations, which are staffed by healthcare professionals, can usually only conduct 200 corona tests per day (also due to limited opening hours).
In addition to such smear tests, blood tests for antibodies play an important role in combating the pandemic. But where does the material for the many corona tests come from? Among other place, from the installations of Robotec Solutions. The Swiss robotics specialists are currently building several robot systems for global companies in the healthcare and diagnostics sector.
In such installations, the robots unload molded parts in a clean room, which are required for the blood tests. These molded parts are manufactured by Flex Precision Plastics in an injection molding process, inter alia. After successful unloading, they are checked for quality by high-voltage tests, vision systems and sophisticated sensor technology. Goods are then labeled by means of a laser and output on a conveyor belt or immediately packaged.
The reason for this is clear: the need for these disposable products, which must be replaced after each test, has greatly increased due to the corona pandemic. Because the automation requirements of the manufacturers are correspondingly high, Robotec has implemented five such systems in the shortest possible time, under high pressure and employing strict hygiene measures: “Our team complies strictly with the requirements of the Swiss health authorities – our robots do not have to do this,” CEO Nick Koch stated.
The handling of many such blood samples and tests in the evaluation is very complicated. This is demonstrated by a look at the University Hospital Aalborg in Denmark, which already relied on a robot-based automation solution before the corona pandemic to relieve the work burden on laboratory staff. Even before the corona crisis, up to 3,000 blood samples arrived there every day. They must be checked and sorted; this task is monotonous and time-consuming on the one hand, and requires special care on the other hand. To give hospital staff more time for other tasks, especially in the current exceptional situation, two Kuka robots from the KR Agilus series now automatically handle these tasks, one of type KR 3 and one of type KR 10.
In the laboratory, an employee places the intelligent transport boxes on the conveyor belt of the robot system. The first robot opens the transport box, takes the blood samples and places them for sorting. The second Kuka robot then sorts the unpacked glass tubes according to the color of their lids. The pre-sorted samples are output from the system in such a way that the laboratory employee can perform the blood test. The system takes an average of 1.5 minutes per box, thus handling up to forty boxes in one hour. Purely technically, this solution can be used for sorting any tests – including corona tests. The only prerequisite for this is that the test material, be it blood samples or rods, is located in the glass tubes and these pass into the robot system in the intelligent transport boxes.
In addition, Kuka robots are active in a number of other current "anti-corona” projects: for example, in northern Italy at Caracol-AM where they print a head mount for face shields every five minutes using 3D printing. More than 1,000 pieces are produced every day. The head mounts printed by the Kuka robots are then supplemented by plexiglass, which is designed to protect against droplet infection. Some of the production is donated by the Italian company Caracol-AM to local hospitals and institutions.
“During the Covid-19 emergency, we want to make a contribution with our 3D printing processes. Thanks to our experience in this field, we were able to react quickly and convert our production,” Francesco De Stefano, CEO of Caracol-AM, stated. The example also shows how fast modern robots can be converted for new tasks.
At the Czech Bulovka Hospital in Prague, a lightweight robot LBR iiwa from Kuka supports hospital staff in testing Covid-19 samples. The Covid test cell was developed and commissioned by the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics (CIIRC). The robot cell has a capacity of 700 tests per day. If necessary, it can continue running at night.
Robotics specialists are also busily developing robotic solutions elsewhere that relieve the burden on lab staff. At the Hahn Group, for example, the team at Hahn Cobot subsidiary Rethink Robotics is currently testing a cobot solution for automating laboratory activities. Hahn uses its collaborative robot Sawyer for this purpose. With the help of Cobots, laboratory employees are relieved of repetitive steps and kept away from dangerous activities. With the support of Sawyer, the distancing rules can also be better observed in smaller working areas. The first installations of the laboratory cobot technology are planned for the summer of 2020.
Other Hahn Group companies also want to help carrying out more tests for Covid-19 and ensure that more consumables such as pipette tips can be produced using automated production. Within four weeks, the sister companies Hahn Robotics and Waldorf Technik designed and commissioned a robotic automation system that removes such pipette tips from a plastic injection molding machine.
In medical technology, there is also a trend to enable diagnostic analyses directly on-site, for example at a family doctor's office instead of sending samples to central laboratories in a time-consuming manner. In order for such rapid tests to be available in large quantities for patient-related laboratory diagnostics (point-of-care testing), these test devices must be assembled on automatic systems. Among others, the mechanical engineering company Teamtechnik builds such systems. For example, the company has just produced a first automatic assembly and testing system for a corona diagnostic product.
And the lines in Freiberg am Neckar are extremely busy: “The demand for the provision of capacity for such assembly and testing facilities for diagnostic products is huge and urgent. We are receiving inquiries from Germany and abroad,” Frank Hack reported, who as Managing Director is responsible for the Medtech Division at Teamtechnik. The mechanical engineering company Contexo from Remstal also reacted immediately to the increased demand for assembly systems for medical devices and increased its capacity. In the past, Contexo, together with diagnostic specialist Curetis, had already designed an automatic mini-laboratory and built a corresponding assembly system to decentralize testing for pneumonia pathogens.
In addition to testing and diagnosis, another important aspect in the containment of the pandemic is the rapid and mass production of protective equipment such as face masks. The assembly plant manufacturer PIA Automation provides fully automatic assembly lines for high-speed production of face masks. Since the rapid spread of the virus, PIA in Amberg has received more than 100 requests from all over the world.
Many local companies are also responding to the call for national production of personal protective equipment. Among them is Zettl Automotive, which is partnering with PIA to produce face masks. Together with Sandler AG, which produces the nonwoven fabric for disposable masks, PIA and Zettl founded the “Masken-Verbund-Bayern” (Bavarian Mask Group). The group wants to produce a six-digit number of masks every day in a few weeks. Each fully automated PIA production line can supply up to 140,000 face masks (depending on type and material) per day, in other words, a multiple of what is currently produced manually.
Automated face mask production systems are not only starting up in Bavaria. The Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT in Aachen, together with IBF Automation from Freudenberg, is also building a production facility for face masks on behalf of Moss from Lennestadt in Sauerland. The project partners have set themselves the goal of setting up a system with which 50,000 face masks can be produced daily. Subsequently, three further systems will be installed in Germany to enable expanding production to 200,000 masks per day.
Bosch has also started manufacturing masks covering the mouth and nose. Thirteen Bosch plants in nine countries are producing masks for their local needs at their own initiative. In addition, Bosch is currently setting up two fully automated production lines at its Stuttgart-Feuerbach site, and others will follow in Erbach (Odenwald) as well as in India and Mexico. “Our special mechanical engineering unit designed a corresponding system within a few weeks,” Bosch CEO Volkmar Denner reported. Bosch has also made the design plans available to other companies free of charge. In total, more than 500,000 masks can be produced per day.