Industrial Robotics in Cleanrooms: Beginning of a New Era

Cleanroom robot in Action (c) Staubli

(GuestPost)— The use of industrial robotics is swiftly changing the industry as we know it and gives multiple small and medium businesses a chance at success. This increases competition, which in turn brings down prices and increases the quality of products.

Unfortunately, industrial electronics and robots are quite expensive, but even this is changing now that cheaper efficient materials are developed.

However, there’s one area of industrial manufacturing where robots are still a rarity. The problem with this is that this is a particular area where they would do most good. Because this specific field is highly expensive and suffers greatly from human error.

The area in question is cleanrooms, which play an integral part in many manufacturing processes ranging from the creation of sensitive electronics to medical drugs. Working in cleanrooms is stressful and difficult for humans as the humidity and lighting conditions are often not optimal for human health.

Depending on the tasks performed within, the workers might need to wear cumbersome suits that reduce their dexterity, range, and flexibility of movement. This inevitably leads to more ‘human error’ as the tasks one has to perform in a cleanroom often require delicate and repetitive work.

Industrial robotics can do the ‘delicate’ and ‘repetitive’ exceptionally well. This is aptly proven by surgical robots and machines installed on production lines that are ready to perform the same mind-numbingly boring task over and over maintaining a nearly 100% rate of success.

They can be at it for hours, days, and weeks as long as the device gets regular maintenance. Humans can only work in cleanrooms for a few hours at a time and require regular breaks as the environment is stressful.

Cleanrooms Robot Yaskawa

Why Industrial Robots Aren’t Used in Cleanrooms Often

The biggest issue with using industrial robotics in cleanrooms, especially those of a higher level, is particle fallout. Machines do not shed skin but they do shed particles, especially from their rubber parts and cables. This is sufficient to create an unacceptable level of contamination within a clean environment.

The mightiest weapon against particle shedding of robots for today is vacuum. It’s applied to the inside of the moving joint and therefore ‘traps’ shed particles preventing the contamination of the product.

Other methods include the use of HEPA (high-efficiency particulae absorbing filters). These aim to catch the shed particles and prevent contamination. Another method, which is much less effective but is a sound strategy, is choosing the right positioning of industrial robots in cleanrooms.

These machines should be installed on the floor, preferably under a table or with some other kind of physical barrier. Such placement reduces the risk of contamination because the majority of the robot body, which emits contaminating particles, sheds them onto the ground.

One also shouldn’t forget speed, which is also a challenge for widespread installation of industrial robotics in cleanrooms. To do its work well, a robot must move extremely fast and with 100% accuracy. However, high speeds and high frequency of repetitive motions lead to an increase of particle shedding.

Luckily, some manufacturers are starting to find ways to break this cycle and now robots capable of operating in class A cleanrooms are available. Unfortunately, they are few and even their efficiency and safety from contamination aren’t at 100%.]

Industrial robotics manufacturers also highlight that to work properly their devices require specialized counters and other surfaces. Ones made from polyurethane are most efficient at the moment.

The configuration of a cleanroom’s work surfaces will also need to be rearranged to help industrial robots be most efficient. Environments designed with human workers in mind can be full of obstacles for a robot. Navigating around them takes important time and increases the rate of particle shedding.

What Is the Future for Industrial Robots in Cleanrooms?

The future of industrial robots in cleanrooms is exceptionally bright. So is the future of all industries they will be able to help and elevate to a new level of production. Yes, the challenges of industrial robotics implementation in cleanrooms are not inconsiderable. However, viable solutions already exist.

Considering the rate of robotics technology development, these solutions will evolve and improve very fast, thus opening the way for robots to work in cleanrooms of any type. This will result not only in an increased efficiency of production lines.

This will open new opportunities for researchers as robots are capable of precision and efficiency humans cannot achieve yet. These qualities can be used in the research and development of new materials and devices, which might push the world to the level of Industry 5.0. One also shouldn’t forget about human lives that are not put at risk by working in the stressful environment of cleanrooms and handling oftentimes deadly substances.

Jim Ross is a writer for DO Supply.

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