Collaborative Robotics: The Present and Future for Medical Device and Healthcare Applications

Photo by 3alexd/iStock / Getty Images

At MD&M West in Anaheim earlier this month, collaborative robotics was a hot topic. While robotic technology is not new in the healthcare industry, the emerging trend of “collaborative robotics” — or cobots — is starting to gain ground.

Robotics Business Review reports that the collaborative robotics market grew by more than 60% in 2018 alone. Moreover, with broader availability and adoption, revenues are forecasted to grow from $600 million to $7.6 billion over the next eight years.

So, what exactly is collaborative robotics and how does it differ from traditional robotics?

Despite panicked headlines about robots coming for our jobs, collaborative robots are designed to work with and alongside technicians, rather than replace them — making it possible to build workflows that incorporate the strengths of both humans and robots.

Unlike traditional robots, cobots don’t pose a threat to human safety. Marked improvements in vision and sensor technology have made it possible to program the cobot to stop working if a person is too close. Also, cobots are much lighter and smaller — some the size of a desk lamp. They’re significantly less expensive, easily programmable and quick to set up.

Cobots are Transforming the Healthcare Industry

With the clear potential for streamlined processes, repeatable safety measures and a more efficient workforce, many in the healthcare and medical device space have also been quick to accept the future of collaborative robotics. We’re particularly excited to see a transformation in the following areas.

Lab Testing

Copenhagen University hospital is using cobots to pick up, sort, and load blood samples into an entry model for analysis. These cobots utilize vision programming by first picking up the sample, placing it in a bar code scanner, and then sorting the sample based on cap color. Once a tray of the same color is full, a second robot places them in a machine for analysis. The pair of bots handle 7 – 8 tubes of blood per minute or about 3,000 samples a day, ensuring that 90% of sample results are ready within one hour. This quick turnaround has resulted in positive patient outcomes. Out-patients can now receive results during their initial consultation rather than making an extra return trip to the hospital. Also, in-patients have same day results available by morning rounds, so physicians are reviewing accurate and up-to-date information.

Patient Care

Terapio, a cobot developed by researchers at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan is designed to give critical time back to busy nurses by providing bedside monitoring for patients and automatically updating electronic medical charts. With the ability to follow medical staff to each patient room and automatically upload vital signs to charts, nurses are relieved of administrative tasks and able to focus on patient care.

Another cobot greeting patients at their bedside is RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) that has a friendly bear-like face. Developed by RIKEN-SRK Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research and Sumitomo Riko Company, RIBA is working to serve the growing elderly population in Japan by lifting patients out of beds and wheelchairs — relieving care workers who often sustain injuries from lifting patients 40 times a day.

Surgery

One of the more familiar cobots in the surgery world is the da Vinci System, built with robot arms and high-tech cameras to assist surgeons during operations. The da Vinci’s arms translate surgeon hand movements into smaller, more precise movements, allowing for less invasive procedures. Over 1 million patients worldwide had a da Vinci procedure in 2018 — a great example of early adoption of cobots in the medical field, spanning many different types of surgeries.

There are also other types of robots currently being used in surgery. Accuray’s CyberKnife system delivers radiation therapy to cancerous tumors that utilize a pre-programmed treatment plan and can correct for movement in real time. Two multi-center studies looking at Cyberknife treatment in prostate cancer patients showed a 97 – 100% success rate for low-risk patients and an 88 – 97% success rate for intermediate risk patients, both exceeding the success rates of conventional radiation therapy.

Only recently, we’ve begun to see robotic applications in the complex field of brain and spinal surgery. Sebastian Koga, M.D., medical director of the Neuroscience Institute at Ochsner Health System is now assisted in surgery by Modus V, which was developed by Synaptive Medical Inc. The cobot provides a high-resolution view of the area being worked on by tracking surgical instruments in-use and then automatically moving its high-powered microscope to accommodate the surgeon.

Stryker/Mako has also begun doing total knee arthroplasty (TKA) utilizing a cobot system to reduce axis malalignment. Bone cuts are 5 times more precise with the system, which results in final component positions being 3.1 times more precise overall. The Mako Total Knee Robotic-Arm Assisted Surgery has also demonstrated soft tissue protection by improving the surgeon's vision during cutting in regards to ligament disruption, reducing the need for tibial subluxation or patella eversion (which results in quicker recovery and improved function).

Surgical cobots are particularly relevant to me since I had a TKA procedure in November that utilized the Mako Robotic-Arm Assisted Surgery. Since my procedure, I have experienced a much better recovery compared with a colleague that had a similar procedure.

Medical Device Manufacturing

India-based Aurolab, which manufactures cataract surgery kits and intraocular lenses have partnered with Universal Robots to optimize manufacturing processes utilizing collaborative robots. The cobots perform tasks such as material handling and careful picking and moving of the components — pivotal for the delicate process of manufacturing the lenses. After introducing eight cobots, Aurolab has seen a 15% increase in product output.

Applications Outside Healthcare

With a smaller price tag and little expertise required for installation, even small and midsize businesses are quickly finding ways to automate workflows with the help of cobots. And adaptation is happening across a multitude of industries. Here’s a look at some of the exciting applications outside of healthcare that is quickly taking hold.

Automotive. As an industry with a lot of potentially dangerous tasks, automotive manufacturers are among the earlier early adopters of industrial robotics. They’ve also been some of the fastest to integrate cobots into their operations. For example, with improved vision technology, cobots are performing visual inspections to detect defects in machine parts — proving more accurate than the human eye.

Fulfillment Centers. Amazon fulfillment centers and several online grocery stores are using cobots to fill orders, saving workers the trouble of walking from shelf to shelf in the warehouses. Similarly, leveraging cobot technology, Chinese e-commerce company JD.com recently constructed a warehouse, which fills 200,000 orders a day with only four workers on site.

Food Service. Axium Food Inc., a mid-size food manufacturer, is utilizing cobots to perform repetitive tasks that have, in the past, caused human injury such as carpal tunnel. In the restaurant industry, where staff turnover is notoriously high, restaurants have begun adding cobots to the grill line to meet high demand — most famously, Flippy, the burger-flipping cobot, began work at Caliburger last March.

Industry Predictions

As cobots continue to meet the needs of the medical device and healthcare industries — providing high success rates and positive patient outcomes — we expect to see accelerated adoption rates. Moreover, with innovative industry partnerships like the one between Google’s life science’s company, Verily, and Johnson&Johnson’s surgical company, Ethicon, product owners can anticipate AI and machine learning to play a more significant role as the digital transformation takes hold in robotics.