How do we rapidly make and administer two doses each of new vaccines to 137 crore people? This is How the huge challenge that India faces and we are witnessing history in the making with our incredible country-wide vaccine drive. The first phase that covers 3 crore healthcare and essential workers, and senior citizens (Health Ministry), is underway. Subsequent phases will cater to the over 100 crore Indians remaining. But while the production and rollout of approved vaccines are ramping up, new virus strains are being discovered.
How do we adapt and develop new vaccines or modify existing vaccines if needed? How do we buffer for potential delays due to infection, social distancing, vaccine damage, and more? Why has the industry not fully automated the biggest bottleneck in vaccine production – the labour-intensive, fill-finish process? Never before has there been a greater urgency for flexible automation to help future-proof our nation and the entire world against disasters.
Why do we need flexibility now?
The need for flexible automation is not new but the stress of the pandemic exposed it as a major faultline. Serum Institute plans to ramp up capacity to 10 crore vaccines a month. The other leading vaccine manufacturer, Bharat Biotech plans to produce 1.7 crore doses per month. At this rate, we will need over two years to vaccinate the entire country with two doses; even then only when we keep 100% of vaccines made in India. However, as the ‘Pharmacy of the World,’ India has shipped 32 lakh doses abroad and expects to send 2 crores more soon.
Assuming the export of even 30% of vaccines, our timeline may increase to over three years. And this is a best-case scenario where manufacturers can upgrade production seamlessly. It does not account for newer virus strains, potential vaccine damage, infrastructure challenges, and more. With greater and more flexible automation, vaccine manufacturers could scale faster and meet domestic and global demand.
Flexible Automation over Hyper Specialized
A majority of tasks today still rely on manual labour even though, ideally, repetitive and low-skilled tasks should be automated for efficiency and quality. Take the fill-finish process of vaccine manufacturing – filling vaccines in vials, inspecting, and packaging them in sterile surroundings. The fill-finish process is a huge gating factor in vaccine production but the process remains mostly manual. It is simple for humans but too complex for the industrial robots of today.
Most robots do not “see” and “understand” the way humans do. They cannot identify objects from bins, re-orient as needed, and perform simple activities. These ‘pick and place’ tasks comprise a majority of activities in most manufacturing facilities. And automated tasks require hyper-specialised robots. Even minor design changes could lead to very expensive customisation. To avoid this issue, many manufacturers continue to use low-skilled labour despite the limitations in speed, efficiency, and quality control. With intelligent and flexible robotics, manufacturers can scale and adapt without compromising on quality – for COVID-19 recovery and beyond.
[Note: The author of the article is Nikhil Ramaswamy, Co-Founder & CEO, CynLr]