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Formulating innovation in chemical handling

17th September 2021

Mitsubishi Electric has helped Labman Automation in the development of a compact, fully automated and high-throughput formulation system in under seven months. The innovative unit has been created for CPI’s National Formulation Centre and is built around two MELFA RV-series six-axis robots with CR800 controllers. These support processing, dispensing and handling activities for a wide range of materials. This advanced setup can enhance productivity by 5-10 times, improving CPI’s offering to companies bringing advanced paint, coating and battery formulations to the market.

CPI is a leading independent technology and innovation centre that connects academia, businesses, government and investors with the aim to bring innovative ideas and research to the marketplace. Its Sedgefield-based National Formulation Centre provides the tools and expertise to support companies in the commercialisation of their next-generation formulations for active pharmaceutical ingredients, paints, coatings, detergents and batteries.

As part of its continuous programme of investment in new equipment and technologies, CPI decided to develop a self-contained, universal automatic formulation system with a glovebox enclosure that could address even the most ambitious processing needs. This would support the commercialisation of new formulations in a variety of markets and applications.

Creating a flexible processing setup

To develop the new formulation system, CPI contacted its preferred specialist in lab automation and robotics, Labman. Dr. Lynn Donlon, Principal Scientist at CPI, explains: “Labman is a trusted partner for developing customised automation systems. We have collaborated with them on a number of projects across various applications and they have always delivered excellent solutions.”

For this project, the two companies designed a compact, modular work cell that could fit three processing sections in an area of only 21 m2. In effect, the system can conduct processing, dispensing and measurements, as well as safe handling of volatile components, nanomaterials and other hazardous substances.

In the first module, sample pots are loaded at high speed and moved to the dispensing unit after their lids have been removed. There, dispensers for solid, liquid and slurry applications quickly fill the pots with accuracies of ±1mg, ±10mg and ±25mg, respectively. The containers are then automatically moved to the processing section and loaded into a dual asymmetrical centrifuge that mixes their contents. At this stage, a pendant drop module can measure the surface tension of the formulations and perform spectral analyses using a multi-function probe station module. Samples can also be transferred to syringes to prepare coatings on a separate, CPI/Labman-designed platform. The final module handles hazardous components by utilising powder feeders for nanoparticles and can also add a range of liquids and solvents to the formulations.

Robotising the unit

Six-axis robots increase the throughput of the system by both handling samples quickly and by supporting continuous operations, processing out of hours and during weekends. They perform key activities, such as removing or applying lids and caps, in the processing and glovebox units. It is important that these tasks are carried out reliably at high-speed and with high accuracy using robots that offer payloads and reach to fit the design of the setup.

For this project, CPI requested a quick delivery and installation of the robots so that the system could be developed, installed and made operational as quickly as possible. To address these aspects, Labman contacted Mitsubishi Electric. Anthony Cumpson, Senior Engineer at Labman, comments: “We selected the MELFA RV series six-axis industrial robots as we knew that they could provide the performance required. Also, the responsiveness of Mitsubishi Electric’s team and the company’s ability to promptly deliver the equipment, were crucial for the quick turnaround of this project.” Furthermore, the six axes utilised make it easier to reach diagonally into key components, such as mixers.

Dr. Lynn Donlon adds: “We are extremely happy with the RV robots. They are perfectly suited for performing the delicate operations within the unit, such as loading and unloading of pots and powder dispense units.”

The project was further streamlined thanks to the compact CR800 robot controllers, which are easy to program and wire. These also enable CPI to implement any basic changes without requiring advanced programming skills.

To optimise space utilisation and reduce the overall footprint of the system, particularly in the glovebox section, Mitsubishi Electric and Labman developed customised solutions that allowed the robots to pick the necessary equipment while moving within set limits. Placing the robotic arms on tracks, for example, was particularly beneficial to making the most of the room available. Such tracks use a Mitsubishi Electric HG-SR52B motor and is linked to the CR800 controllers for accurate positioning.

The RV series also supports the creation of robot safety zones to enable cooperative applications. Human operators can access one of the three sections, stopping any automated activity there, while the other two can continue their tasks without interruptions.

Ready, set, formulate!

The entire system was built in under seven months, half of the time that is typically required for similar projects. Since starting operations, the formulation unit has been widely utilised by CPI and its partners, raising considerable interest from specialists in different sectors. In effect, the solution can increase productivity by 5-10 times compared to conventional operations.

In addition, the flexible and modular build has been designed to support further expansions. Dr. Lynn Donlon explains: “We are extremely happy with the solution that has been developed and technical support provided by both Labman and Mitsubishi Electric. Since building this formulation system we have expanded the scope of our collaboration by adding further modules to the unit. We are working on plans to develop the capabilities of the system even further in the near future.”

Ian Patterson, Key Account Manager at Mitsubishi Electric, concludes: “It is great to see our robots used in such an innovative application, supporting next-generation formulations. We’ve had brilliant feedback and look forward to continuing our work with Labman and CPI.”


Image 1: Mitsubishi Electric has helped Labman Automation in the development of a compact, fully automated and high-throughput formulation system for CPI’s National Formulation Centre. [Source: Labman Automation Ltd]

Image 2: The innovative formulation system is built around two MELFA RV series six-axis robots that support processing, dispensing and handling activities for a wide range of materials. [Source: Labman Automation Ltd]

Image 3: The MELFA RV-series robotic arms can increase productivity by 5-10 times by handling samples quickly and by supporting continuous operations, processing out of hours and during weekends. [Source: Labman Automation Ltd]

Image 4: To operate successful in a compact workcell, the robots were placed on tracks and programmed accordingly to pick the necessary equipment while moving within set limits. Safety zones were also set to enable cooperative applications.

About Mitsubishi Electric

With more than 100 years of experience in providing reliable, high-quality products, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation (TOKYO: 6503) is a recognized world leader in the manufacture, marketing and sales of electrical and electronic equipment used in information processing and communications, space development and satellite communications, consumer electronics, industrial technology, energy, transportation and building equipment. Mitsubishi Electric enriches society with technology in the spirit of its “Changes for the Better.” The company recorded a revenue of 4,476.7 billion yen (U.S.$ 36.7 billion*) in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2022.Mitsubishi Electric Europe, Industrial Automation – UK Branch is located in Hatfield, United Kingdom. It is a part of the European Factory Automation Business Group based in Ratingen, Germany which in turn is part of Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V., a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Japan.

The role of Industrial Automation – UK Branch is to manage sales, service and support across its network of local branches and distributors throughout the United Kingdom.

*U.S. dollar amounts are translated from yen at the rate of ¥221=U.S.$1, the approximate rate on the Tokyo Foreign Exchange Market on March 31, 2022.

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