News briefs for the week take a look at pharmacy robots saving time, money and lives, electric vehicle production driving the development of new kinds of industrial robots, space-orbiting tow trucks, robot arms and 3D printers combining for first-ever technology capabilities, and $73 million for robots hunting for dangerous infrastructure.
Walgreens converting to prescription-filling robots
So, why is Walgreens investing in prescription-filling robots? Productivity and cost savings are two of the most prominent reasons. Walgreens told CNBC that “each robot in its micro-fulfillment center can fill about 300 prescriptions per hour, or the typical number of orders an in-store Walgreens pharmacy can fill in a day.”
Medication errors and insurance-claim litigation are two others. “It is believed that preventable medication errors impact more than 7 million patients in the U.S. and cost almost $21 billion annually across all care settings,” reports the National Library of Medicine
Walgreens plans to operate a total of 11 micro-fulfillment centers nationwide by the end of 2022; 22 by 2025. The first two facilities are already operational in Phoenix and Dallas.
Walgreens acquired a majority stake in the pharmaceutical fulfillment technology company, iA, that operates these facilities. The Phoenix and Dallas facilities support prescription fulfillment at 550 Walgreens pharmacies.
Trucks from AmeriSourceBergen then drive the “ready-to-pickup prescriptions” to individual drugstores in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana (a radius of about 400 miles).
Indianapolis-based iA makes the robot automation hardware for what it calls “intelligent enterprise pharmacy fulfillment.”
Walgreens President John Standley said that these “micro-fulfillment centers will reduce the company’s working capital by $1.1 billion by 2025.”
Human pharmacists, however, will continue to manually fill prescriptions that involve controlled substances, HIV-related medications and/or are time-sensitive.
EVs driving ABB’s new robot lineup
Electric vehicles (EVs), their components and batteries are driving the development and production of the robot tools necessary to build them.
With worldwide sales of EVs projected for 2022 to be 6 million electric cars (battery electric and plug-in hybrid; nearly double the number for 2021), and with 8.7 million by 2030, the need for robot-driven automation to build EVs is growing exponentially. A message heard loud and clear by Swiss-based robot maker ABB.
ABB is seemingly covering all the EV bases with a new lineup of IRB 5710 and IRB 5720 industrial robots, available in 8 different variations. With payloads from 70kg to 180kg, with reaches from 2.3m to 3m, and high-speed precision manufacturing their specialty, the new robot lineup seems very well suited for specific operations in EV battery module production, picking and placing, high precision assembly, parts handling, material handling, machine tending and assembly.
“The switch from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to EVs especially is driving increased demand for fast, adaptable production lines,” says Joerg Reger, managing director of ABB Robotics. “EV designs can often be highly complex, and components such as batteries and semi-conductor modules can be very heavy or extremely fragile. These demands call for solutions that offer maximum precision and repeatability to avoid errors in production.
Orbiting tow truck hunts dead satellites
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there are 30,000-plus, satellite-size objects orbiting Earth, of which only about 5,000 are actually in working order. The rest are no more than flying debris…and, travelling at 18,000 mph, are very dangerous to other satellites.
Japan, Switzerland, the U.S. and the UK have each established programs to build and implement orbiting cleaners to reduce space debris, formally referred to as On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) satellites. China, with the launch of its SJ-21 (Shijian-21), is the fifth.
The SJ-21 was spotted grappling onto China’s BeiDou-2 G2, an inactive spacecraft from China’s BeiDou-2 Navigation Satellite System. Changing orbit, the SJ-21 danced the debris 200 miles into a graveyard orbit, which is a special junk or disposal orbit 22,400 miles distant from the planet. The SJ-21 then undocked from the debris leaving it in a permanent place in the space cemetery. With one less object in the orbiting paths of the other 5,000, China’s orbiting tow truck was off to repeat the process.
In addition to the 30,000-plus large space objects launched from 1960 onward, ESA estimates that there are another 300 million smaller pieces too small to track, which makes the needed cleanup a monumental task.
Is this the perfect marriage of robot and 3D printer?
One of the most elegant marriages between robots and 3D printers might well be the one developed by Linares, Spain-based Meltio (founded in 2019) for Wire Laser Metal Deposition (LMD) for the Directed Energy Deposition (DED) process that the company calls Meltio Engine Robot Integration.
Precision industrial manufacturing has long sought additive 3D printing technologies capable of outputting metal parts that meet the highest requirements for industries such as medical, aeronautics or aerospace.
“Laser Metal Deposition (LMD), in addition to all of the standard benefits of other metal technologies, includes some first-of-a-kind advances in 3D printing like using “metal wire and metal powder independently or both metal wire and powder simultaneously, all without a nozzle change,” reports the company.
The LMD toolhead for the system utilizes multiple high-power lasers to melt metal feedstock directly onto a substrate below, resulting in fully dense metal parts.” Meltio was recently issued a patent for both processes.
In addition, the available “high laser power and hot wire feed options provide high material deposition rates while retaining the precision and resolution of a laser process.” LMD can also output metal coating, texturing, polishing and cutting, all without requiring external equipment.
“Using multiple lasers allows us to have scalable laser power in a tightly integrated system,” explains CTO Brian Matthews. “So it’s very compact, easy to integrate with CNC machines and robots, and allows us to have the material feed on-axis coaxially and what that means is that every direction looks the same to the process.
A critical advantage is that Meltio’s lasers are inclined from a vertical position to feed the process. Most other metal printers for laser wires orient the feed head in a more limiting, off-axis position.
So far, Meltio has sold its Engine Robot Integration system to 110 buyers worldwide.
$73 million for robots seeking cracks, rust and danger
Any structure that is outside in all degrees of weather is time-limited until some part of it fails. A tank at a oil refinery, a water pipe that supplies a city, or a bridge supporting traffic oftentimes become dangerous with little or no obvious signs of imminent danger.
That’s where the robots from Pittsburgh-based Gecko Robotics (founded in 2013) come into play with robot-enabled ultrasonics. Gecko’s robots, attached to pipes, tanks or other structures, creep along hunting for cracks, rust or impending dangers from a number of weathered surfaces.
As the company says, “Our world demands critical infrastructure be reliable. Inspection and maintenance are mainstays in achieving this outcome.” Gecko’s services have been so well received that investors have poured over $120 million into its technology, the latest, $73 million early in 2022.
“Gecko’s unique combination of robotics, software, and AI radically improves the ability to inspect, protect, and efficiently maintain critical infrastructure,” says VC investor Tim Brown.
Brian Heater of TechCrunch remarked: “The tech certainly ticks off the dirty and dangerous boxes of automation. It’s designed to scale structures in extremely demanding and difficult settings. The robots spot damage that is often too subtle to be viewed with the human eye, and Gecko’s software helps determine potential problem areas.”
As Gecko’s CEO Jake Loosararian put it: “Our human-operated robots can collect data faster and at greater volumes than traditional inspection methods, and Gecko’s software allows engineers and managers to make informed decisions about the operations of their facilities.”