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Vision key to automated life science research

Automated Systems of Tacoma (AST) has developed a pharmaceutical filling machine for a life science research company to fill and finish all its small-scale clinical trial products.

The system uses Cognex In-Sight Micro vision system to locate particular containers and stoppers and provide filling robots with the locations prior to processing. AST had to design a single flexible platform able to handle various sizes of prefilled syringes, vials, cartridges and IV bags with minimal product changeover times.

The approach allows for rapid changeover from one container type or size to another by loading a new robot program, replacing the products carriers, and instructing the robot to change out the end of arm tooling. The system's use of disposable materials is used on all process contacting parts which also reduces the changeover time, and eliminates the risk of cross contamination.

The biggest challenge of developing a machine that embodies these concepts is integrating the robot and vision system in order to provide the high levels of accuracy and speed required by the application. Brian LaFave of Olympus Controls, who was involved in developing the system, commented: 'I took a close look at the application and came to the conclusion that integration between the vision system and robot was key. Mounting the vision system on the robot arm also made it essential for the vision system to be small, light and have very simple cabling. I felt that the Cognex Micro In-Sight 1100 would be perfect for the task.'

The Cognex In-Sight Micro system comes equipped with preconfigured drivers, ready to use templates, and sample code for communicating with most robots. The Staubli TX-60 HE six axis industrial robot was used for this application, because of its ability to withstand aggressive cleaning and bio-decontamination required for the application.

'The robotic filling system is the simplest solution for any organisation looking to increase their product and container filling capabilities, without purchasing multiple machines dedicated to a particular product or container type,' said Josh Russell, project engineer for the Life Sciences Group at AST. 'The machine is capable of handling all liquid packaging needs for many pharmaceutical companies, contract manufacturers and compounding pharmacies at hospitals. It fits within a 12 by 16 foot cleanroom and costs far less than the machines that it replaces.'


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