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Continuous Improvement through Continuous Motion

Mon, 08/08/2011 - 11:50am
Pat Phillips

How do medical manufacturers meet the increasing demands of the marketplace? By being faster, more efficient, more cost effective, and providing higher quality. This holds true for every part of the process, from design to production, to assembly and distribution.

As designers envision more complex, functional products, and manufacturers increase production speeds, the engineers in charge of the next step—assembly—need to step up their game, as well. Part of any continuous improvement initiative involving assembly should take a look at continuous motion technology.

In continuous motion, multiple processes—assembly, cap closing, labeling, testing, inspection, and more—occur without interruption for every cycle, effectively overlapping. Conversely, in indexing motion, the more traditional assembly technology, the product starts and stops at each process station on the machine, resulting in a jolt that’s hard not only on delicate parts, but on the machine parts as well. The smooth process of continuous motion makes damage to your components and assembly machinery less likely.

Continuous motion assembly is also faster (400 to 1,000 ppm, vs. up to 250 ppm with indexing) and more precise. The tooling never loses contact with the individual components, so part alignment is always maintained. A level of accuracy is produced that is well suited to the high production assembly of syringes, I.V. sets, and other medical devices.

But what about products with difficult-to-automate features, such as the odd shapes and tacky surfaces that are increasingly common among today’s medical devices?

That’s where another area of continuous improvement—improved communication—comes into play. If you involve your automation partner early in your process, they can always work around issues and ensure you get a continuous motion system that works optimally for your product.

One issue automation designers can help with is part-to-part variation. The realities of production often lead to parts that don’t perfectly and consistently match the print. If your team shares details about these types of variations—an area where a part is likely to warp, for example—then your automation partner can make accommodations to handle these issues in the assembly system.

Sometimes automation designers can even identify changes to the design or processing of the part to fix these issues and save you money in molding and manufacturing. Such changes, however, are cost-beneficial only if done early in product development.

Collaboration early on is also key for regulatory approvals. As noted, automation designers can often identify minor, functionally insignificant changes in part design that will make automated assembly faster. But I’m sure you know the trials and tribulations of changing part design or equipment—even just a little bit—once regulatory approval is underway. The lesson: Don’t wait until it’s too late to talk about the automation system in your design process.

The idea is to keep the lines of communication open from the beginning, sharing important specs about the application, materials, processing, timelines, and more.

When you do that, the benefits of a continuous motion system for your product will include:

  • Significantly lower maintenance costs than indexing systems,
  • Multiple, longer processes (some up to 3-4 seconds) automated on one machine,
  • More “up time” in production, resulting in higher net yields, and
  • Customized machine design with smaller footprint (sometimes by factors of 10 or more compared to other technologies).

Those could be just the results you’re looking for, in the continuing quest to make your product a competitive success.

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