Theme impact

The impact of robotics on the medical devices sector

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The matrix below details the areas in robotics where medical device companies should be focusing their time and resources. We suggest that medical device companies invest in technologies shaded in green, explore the prospect of investing in technologies shaded in yellow, and ignore areas shaded in red.

Robotics is not directly relevant to all sections of the medical devices value chain, as robots will not apply to market access operations. However, most segments of the robotics value chain will be of interest to the product development and R&D departments of medical device companies.

Medical robots and exoskeletons are the most important segments to invest in as a result of demand from healthcare providers. However, other segments including industrial co-bots, drones, inspection robots, and cloud robotics will prove useful in reducing R&D costs and speeding up processes.

The same benefits will be seen from investing in these robotic technologies for manufacturing and distribution activities further down the development line. Companies should also explore investment in caged industrial robots for handling dangerous or heavy equipment throughout the supply chain.

Industrial co-bots, logistics robots, care robots, and inspection robots will reduce the costs of completing clinical trials, and further enable decentralised trial design. Investment in consumer robots could help to boost sales of medical devices. For example, Hillrom invested in telepresence robots from Ava Robotics to reach and educate potential customers. 

How robotics helps resolve the challenge of Covid-19 

Robots played an important role during the Covid-19 pandemic. Cleaning robots provided an extra line of defence in healthcare settings as staff went into isolation, sanitising rooms to reduce transmission rates between patients and staff. Cleaning robot vendor Xenex noted a boom in orders in March 2020 for its $125,000 disinfecting robot, particularly in Italy and across Asia as the pandemic began.

Drones were also used to disinfect public places in China and India during the pandemic. Industrial co-bots were used to quickly analyse Covid-19 point-of-care testing swabs, originally at the University of California Berkeley, and care robots helped to reduce transmission rates in hospitals, reducing the need for nurses to be in direct contact with patients. For example, in 2020, Boston Dynamic’s Spot robot greeted arrivals and took patient vitals at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US.

In the pharma and medical devices sectors, industrial co-bots and caged industrial robots helped to speed up manufacturing processes as demand exploded for Covid-19 vaccines and devices such as ventilators.

Leading industrial robotics vendor ABB commented, in an article by A3, that the pharma sector was more aware of the benefits of robots following the Covid-19 pandemic, as companies had to significantly boost production. Drones also proved to be useful during the Covid-19 pandemic for lab sample pick-up and the transport of medical supplies and vaccines to remote locations. For example, in India, the i-Drone pilot project delivered 900 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine in less than 15 minutes, covering over 31 kilometres.

According to GlobalData, there was a drop in surgical robot sales at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, down 10% in Q1 2020, 37% in Q2 2020, and 28% in Q3 2020, compared to Q4 2019. However, surgical robotics can help healthcare providers to tackle the patient backlogs resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, although this will be dependent on whether the pandemic continues to ease, as waves of infections have impacted sales.

For example, Globus Medical cited a reduction in business in Q1 2022 because hospitals were “limiting access and shifting their focus to managing through the uptick in Covid cases”.

To future-proof in the event of further pandemics, pharma will benefit from automated facilities such as cloud robotics-enabled research laboratories from vendors including Strateos. Remote-controlled labs would reduce the impact of containment measures on R&D. 

How robotics helps resolve the challenge of ESG

Robotics already provide pharma, medical devices, and healthcare providers with opportunities to improve their environmental footprint. Industrial cleaning robots, such as Xenex’s LightStrike Robot, reduce water usage, while autonomous mobile robots replace traditional vehicles in the transportation of goods, reducing GHG emissions.

The use of industrial robots in manufacturing processes and supply chains can ensure the efficient production of drugs and medical devices. Converging robotics with AI will enhance this further, predicting product and material demand, reducing waste, and ensuring energy efficiency. The integration of these technologies will also be particularly useful in sustainably maintaining cold chains required for some drugs.

Robots also offer opportunities for improving a company’s social performance. Medical robots help to enhance the quality of patient care, such as assisting staff with limited experience in complex surgery in less-economically developed countries. Industrial robots improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce the cost of developing drugs and treatments, improving market access.

Similarly, drones increase patient access, delivering medications to remote regions with poor logistics infrastructure. For example, Zipline is in charge of 75% of blood distribution out of Kigali to rural health facilities in Rwanda.

Robotics may also present new ESG challenges. Currently, use cases for robotics in healthcare primarily involve addressing staff shortages and freeing staff from unsociable hours and dangerous or repetitive work. Unions, policymakers, and social scientists are increasingly concerned that automation will lead to increased unemployment.

Each industrial robot can replace several human workers, so these worries do not seem unfounded. However, if the economy can create higher-value jobs for the workers that robots replace, the deployment of robotics in the industry will be a positive development. 

How robotics helps resolve the challenge of smart manufacturing

The pharma industry is looking for more ways to enhance the productivity of its complex manufacturing and supply chain processes. The deployment of robotics can lead to substantial enhancements beyond productivity increases, resulting in better compliance, consistency, and operational excellence. The use of robotics in pharma manufacturing is not new, with early examples including AstraZeneca’s installation of robots in a Swedish plant in 2007, and it is progressing.

The convergence of 5G, IoT, and sensors could allow for manufacturing robots enhanced with AI to be programmed to continually adjust their performance to achieve optimal productivity and efficiency. Cloud robotics allow pharma to store the vast amount of real-time data being collected, making it available across the company to better control processes, enhance production, increase visibility, enhance supply chain management, and improve decision-making processes.

Pharma companies are investing in high-tech manufacturing facilities combining robotics and other technologies. For example, Bayer is building a smart production plant in Finland using robots to increase the production of its world-leading contraceptive drug, and Takeda is creating a robotics-enabled cell therapy manufacturing facility in California.

GlobalData’s Smart Pharma 2021 survey found that robotics was considered to be the most disruptive technology in pharma manufacturing processes. However, many respondents indicated that they were not using robotics and that they believed it would take more than five years for the use of robotics to peak in pharma manufacturing.

This may be attributed to the fact that the use of robotics has currently not reached its full potential in pharma manufacturing and that it is still in the early days of adoption. The highest current use of robotics is in Asia-Pacific, and can be explained by these countries having implemented strategic initiatives to strengthen their manufacturing competitiveness. 

GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article.      

GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence uses proprietary data, research, and analysis to provide a forward-looking perspective on the key themes that will shape the future of the world’s largest industries and the organisations within them.