With the emergence of Covid-19 and the resulting increased need for pharmacy efficiencies, demand for robotics systems in the pharmacy industry has accelerated. One recent report predicts that the global pharmaceutical robots market will reach $222.40m by the end of 2026, up from $93.37m in 2019, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 13.2%, according to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA).

Pharmacy robots have been with us for some time. The RIA says that in the early nineties, the pharmacy industry consisted of ad hoc setups, many of which were created by engineers with low level experience developing industry quality robotics. These robots performed adequately, but in a strictly regulated sector such as the pharmacy industry, where consistency and traceability are key, there was subsequent growing demand for industry quality robotics solutions.

In recent years, automation and robotics have transformed the landscape across the healthcare industry, particularly in the pharmacy sector. Many of the wholesale channels across the world are highly robotic dependent.

According to the Journal of mHealth, unlike a pharmacist, a robot can fill and organise a large number of products without the need for any manual intervention and with less chance of human error.

A 2017 study by the University of California, San Francisco showed that one of the largest drivers of the increased use of automation and technology within the medication dispensing process is the intuitive belief that it leads to an increase in patient safety and a reduction in pharmacy errors.

Other than increasing the efficiency of operations, this also frees up time for pharmacists and pharmacy staff to spend doing more value-added tasks and offering valuable pharmacy services and private consultations. The newer systems have an automated loading mechanism, which scans the barcode on the box to keep a record of its location within the robot, thus allowing it to be found quickly and dispensed efficiently and without delay for the customer.

The growth and rejuvenated potential of transformation that robotics can bring to the retail pharmacy business is starting to gain global traction. An example of this is in the Danish pharmacy business, where almost 70% of community pharmacies use automated technology, while in the rest of mainland Europe the figure stands at approximately 35%. In Ireland, it is thought that figure is closer to 5%.

Robots and automation perform many manual, repetitive tasks – in some cases filling patient prescriptions as well as organising products, automated stock ordering and are as much as an inventory system as a dispensary unit for storage of FOS and OTC products.

Dale Pittock is the sales Director of UK pharmacy consumables supplier, Valley Northern. He says that pharmacies are under increasing pressure from issues such as budget cuts, the aging population and medicine shortages. These all pose challenges to pharmacy management teams, including increased responsibilities, reduced time to spend with customers and limited storage space. Therefore, it is crucial that pharmacists consider the benefits of incorporating new technology to increase efficiency. The Journal of mHealth have said that each automated dispensary system has different technical specifications, but many are able to safely store controlled drugs (CD) and refrigerated items, meaning the machines can be used for almost any medication.

In pharmacy, there is increasing pressure to react quickly to change and acceleration within the industry and in online retail across the board. Pharmacies must consider, in the current climate, how they are going to operate and increase their workforce while keeping their workers safe. It is clear that robot automation offers many answers to such challenges. “Technology allows pharmacists to remove themselves from dispensing, allowing them to have more of an overview of the business, and it provides an opportunity to use their clinical skills,” says David Vanns of UK based Weldricks, who have 65 pharmacies, most of them with dispensing robots. While there are labour savings through the introduction of robots, colleagues are deployed to customer service and other roles that they have been trained for, rather than that of a box-getter or a cashier.

In terms of volumes, typically a pharmacy doing above 6,000 – 8,000 items per month will benefit most from automation, as there is a level of complexity and burdensome administration that is very time-consuming. However, depending on your reasons for wanting a robot, they are viable for pharmacists who dispense as few as 4,000 items per month. Robot price is driven mainly by capacity, which can range from 800 to 25,000 products per robot. A typical investment for a robot is between €80,000 to €180,000 depending on the size and dispensing capability of the robot.

Our German robot partner, Gollmann, has over 1,500 robot installations across 5 countries in  Europe including Ireland, with sights on the UK. The company founder, Daniel Gollmann, states “The advantages of using robotics in your pharmacy are endless. These include a significant saving on floor space and so using that free space to provide customers with other services through a pharmacist’s expertise. The compact design enables an extremely efficient storage of thousands of boxes per metre of the machine’s entire casing length. This saves you unnecessary reconstruction work and creates additional space in the pharmacy. The length, height and width of the robot can be adjusted to suit your store. With over 1000 combinations, this guarantees that the robot fits perfectly in your pharmacy.” Gollmann are highly focused on a maximum level of quality and durability, saving you money in the long run. Their Made in Germany quality mark guarantees that you get the latest in automation systems technology, fully designed, manufactured and assembled in Germany. Gollmann claim 99.5% uptime with nearly all problems fixed remotely. Gollmann are going to market in 2021 with a unique collection point that is accessible 24/7, whereby the robot stores prescriptions and are dispensed via an ATM type externally, on presentation of a two-step verification process through text and QR code technology.

The pharmaceutical industry has increasingly come to understand the performance and reliability benefits that industry quality robotics bring with them. Maybe it’s time to ask: do the benefits outweigh the costs?