One of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies, AstraZeneca Australia, is now relying on ABB robot technology to pack and palletise asthma medication to meet rising export demand from China.

The ABB robots are part of an $80m investment in six new production lines at AstraZeneca’s North Ryde, NSW facility. A further two lines are currently being installed and validated. The pharmaceutical company, which has been manufacturing in the Sydney suburb for more than 50 years, recently completed installation of the six new lines.

Each of the six existing production lines has the capacity to produce 65m units per year of AstraZeneca’s asthma medication, called Pulmicort Respules. Each line features a 4010 Blow-Fill-Seal (BFS) with purpose-built finishing and packaging system known as Respules 4010, culminating in a case packing and palletising cell which utilises an ABB IRB 4600 robot. Once all eight lines are in operation, AstraZeneca will have the capacity to produce 520m units per year of the Pulmicort medicine.

World-first system

Plans for AstraZeneca’s North Ryde upgrade commenced in 2011 after the company signed a supplier agreement with the Chinese government, naming North Ryde the sole global site for the supply of Pulmicort Respules – which are used to treat a portion of China’s estimated 7m asthma sufferers.

In order to meet its increased supply targets, AstraZeneca engaged ABB authorised value provider Andrew Donald Design Engineering (ADDE) to develop a purpose-built packaging, verification and robotics palletising solution, to support six new production lines at the North Ryde manufacturing facility. Based in Bayswater (VIC), ADDE is a specialist in the design of industrial automation solutions, offering in-house mechanical, electrical and control system design, procurement, manufacture, installation and support.

ADDE worked closely with AstraZeneca to develop the Respules 4010 packaging system, from the initial concept development and systems design, right through to integration into the production lines at the North Ryde facility. A completely new configuration, the Respules 4010 took 40 people nine months to perfect. At the heart of the world-first system is an ABB IRB 4600 robot, enclosed in a sterile glass cell, and employing ABB’s SafeMove technology to ensure the highest levels of operator and product safety.

Packing and palletising requirements

According to ADDE Managing Director Barry Hendy, each of the four production lines or ‘bays’ feature two key areas: the product is processed on a finishing line at the back of the bay, and then fed to case packers and palletisers at the end of the line.

“The robot cells do the security sealing, as well as the serialisation for the track-and-trace system on each and every carton,” Hendy explains. “They then do the case packing and palletising of each case, putting them on to the slip-sheets, and feeding them out of the cells on to the trolleys.”

ADDE has been an ABB authorised value provider for a number of years, and specifies ABB robots for the majority of its industrial automation projects. The ABB IRB 4600 robot at the core of AstraZeneca’s new packaging system offers sharp path accuracy and motion control, an ultra-wide working range, short cycle times, flexible mounting possibilities, and top-level protection for harsh environments.

“We looked at a number of the products in the ABB range and decided the IRB 4600 was the best fit in this configuration, with its long arm giving us the reach we needed while being able to fit within the required cell and perform all the tasks the customer demanded,” said Hendy. “One of the very unique and challenging things in this cell is that the safety guarding has been done with toughened glass – which is very good at keeping people out, but not so good at keeping robots in. So, to achieve the safety standards that we needed, the robots are fitted with ABB’s SafeMove technology, which provides the safety to ensure the robot stays within the cell, and away from the glass, while the glass ensures that the operators stay out.”

Flexible, reliable solution

According to AstraZeneca Australia Engineering & Operational Excellence Manager Paul Ives, the ABB robot solution has allowed the manufacturer to increase throughput at its North Ryde facility, while maintaining the pharmaceutical manufacturer’s extremely high product quality requirements.

“Our manufacturing process utilises blow-fill seal technology that moulds molten plastic containers, fills and seals them, all within a grade-A sterile environment,” Ives explained. “The containers are then printed, inspected, and checked for leaks before final packing in the robot cell.

“Our case packing and palletising robot cell is extremely compact and versatile. It applies a security seal and a unique serialised barcode before being packed, 18 at a time, into a shipper – this is also identified with a unique barcode. The pallet is then stacked, complete with slip-sheet and pallet trays, all within the same enclosure.

“We’ve currently got around nine ABB robots in the plant, and we anticipate this will increase in the future. We’ve seen many benefits from using these robots, including reliability and dependable operation, as well as reduced labour costs and flexibility.”