Our technological environment is a rapidly developing, always diversifying arena in which the only constants are growth and change. And this is nothing new. Although we consider our technological advances as being relatively recent – viz the growth of Silicon Valley and our entry into the Information Age – American history is replete with examples of how innovation as it applies specifically to technology has revolutionized our country and our lives. Let’s take a moment to look back at the precursor of our modern day digital revolution: the ‘Second Industrial Revolution,’ also known as the ‘Technological Revolution’….
Between 1870 and 1914 advancements in the technologies associated with manufacturing and large scale production of goods skyrocketed in the U.S. as the country’s newly developed transportation infrastructure allowed free movement of goods and workers. And, unlike the first Industrial Revolution with its focus on heavy engineering, the period Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, termed ‘The Age of Synergy’ (also known as the ‘Technological Revolution’) saw a focus on innovation that was rooted in science.
Fast-forward one hundred years and we find a period of unprecedented interweaving of and reliance upon science and technology. From global communications to space research to automated manufacturing and production, 21st-century infrastructure offers hitherto unseen challenges and opportunities. And in a scenario that would have been unimaginable to our predecessors, roles previously filled by highly trained human workers are now increasingly undertaken by automated processes and automated workers. In other words, by code and by robots.
And the advantages of these new non-human workers are obvious. Absolute precision, 24-hour operation, no downtime, freedom from physical limitation, ability to perform precise/repetitive/tedious tasks, and 100% consistency in every role. Indeed, with advances in artificial cognition and machine learning and the availability of ever cheaper sensors, it is estimated that a full 70% of occupations will be replaced by automated workers within the next eighty years.(1)
So how does this play out in our cleanrooms and contamination-controlled environments? Unsurprisingly, the advantages are abundantly clear. First and foremost, as Jane Eudy points out in her article in Controlled Environments Magazine (@CEMagazineUS), in addition to the increased efficiency in production, the advent of robots in the cleanroom leads to the almost complete eradication of human contamination. After all, she says, “Of the many potential sources of contamination in cleanrooms and other clean manufacturing environments, none is more persistent, pervasive or pernicious than the human beings who occupy them.”(2) As industry insiders are too all well aware, even the most diligent workers in the cleanroom environment shed particles (skin, dandruff, etc) at a rate of 100,000 particles per minute. And this pertains to worker in positions where they are standing, sitting, or even motionless. Moreover, this data doesn’t even take into account the possible introduction of other contaminants such as the bacteria, molds, yeasts, pollen, household dusts, or smoke residues for which human personnel can be direct vectors.
So from a contamination-control perspective as well as in solid business terms it seems that the on-going introduction of mechanized workers – robots – into critical environments is a sound decision. As Rush LaSalle of Adept Technology, Inc. notes in an article for Industry Week, “Automating cleanroom processes will increase production, reduce cycle times and decrease manufacturers’ costs.”(3)
But that is only one view of the overall picture. At the same time as they eliminate (for the most part) the potential for human-borne cleanroom contamination, robots do risk introducing their own contaminants – an issue which needs to be taken into account when considering the extent to which critical environments can ever be personnel-free. Robots are certified as appropriate for different industries and cleanroom levels according to the number of particles they generate when in motion, and this certification goes way beyond the standards applied to humans. Before starting their first day on a job, a robot must submit to particle counters calibrated to exceed National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST standards. And Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) B 9921. And ASTM F 328-98. And…the list goes on.
In addition, a stringent protocol must be followed when conveying the robots into the critical environment so that particle introduction is minimized. In transit from their manufacturer, they are wrapped in multiple layers of packaging which are removed onsite only as the robot passes through a series of increasingly cleaner spaces and the layers are wiped down for decontamination. During installation, the robot bodies must be prepared for use by repeatedly wiping them and should also be connected to a vacuum system to thoroughly cleanse them of particulate matter.
In terms of preparatory work, it’s a significant challenge and one that, of course, can only be done by human personnel. As can the on-going work of actually monitoring the performance and calibration of these automatons in the lab. But it’s a challenge that industries crucial to the current tech revolution – for instance, micro-electronics and semi-conductor industries – are willing to undertake. In a press release published in Newsmaker, experts estimate the growth of the global cleanroom robot market as 5.39% (compounded annually) during the next four years (2016-2020).(4) Manufacturers such as Yamaha Robotics and Yaskawa Electric alongside vendor partners like Panasonic, Omron Adept Technologies, Toshiba, and Universal Robotics clearly see the potential for contamination-free automation but also concede that the high cost of installation and integration could be a significant hurdle for some potential customers.
At this point in time and viewed through a lens outside of the robotics industry, it could be argued that the ideal balance may well be one in which highly-trained (but lower-cost) human personnel work in harmony alongside their perfectly precise and consistent automated counterparts…at least until such time as we enter the putative third Technological Revolution: the Age of Self-Aware Robotics.
Do you have thoughts about the value of robots in the cleanroom? We’d love to hear them!