What are cleanroom robots?

July 3, 2024
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What are cleanroom robots?

Cleanroom robots are designed specifically to work in controlled environments like cleanrooms. They have sealed components and non-particle-shedding materials that won’t contaminate the cleanroom or the products being made.

Components of cleanroom robots

Cleanroom robots have several components that allow them to operate in sanitized environments:

  • Contamination-controlled components. The major parts, like joints, motors, and end effectors, are made up of non-particle-generating materials that won’t release contaminants. Things like stainless steel, aluminum, and plastics are very common.
  • Purged cables. The cables connecting the robot to controllers outside the cleanroom are purged, meaning they’re filled with clean, pressurized air. This prevents particles from traveling through the cable into the cleanroom.
  • Sealed covers. The robot’s joints and motors are sealed inside protective covers that keep contaminants out. Air filters and laminar flow systems blow clean air to the components inside the covers.
  • Cleanroom-compatible end-effectors. The end-effectors, or “hands” that grab and manipulate materials are composed of non-particle generating materials. They’re also designed so they can be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized to the cleanroom's standards.
  • Isolated power systems. To avoid power fluctuations that could impact sensitive equipment, cleanroom robots typically have their own isolated power systems. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) provide backup power in case the main system fails.

Types of Cleanroom Robots

There are many types of cleanroom robots to choose from, and they’re not all made equal. 

They are: 

Articulated arm robots

Articulated arm robots have jointed arms that can rotate and extend. The arm has multiple segments connected by joints that allow movement in many directions. 

These joints provide high skill levels and a wide range of motion, allowing the arm to reach many areas. Articulated arms are common in material handling and assembly.

SCARA robots

SCARA means Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm, or also Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm in some places. These robots have two parallel rotary joints to provide compliance in a selected plane. 

They’re fast, very precise, and rigid. SCARA robots are excellent for high-speed assembly, pick and place, packaging, and cleanroom sorting.

Cartesian robots

Cartesian robots have three linear axes of motion for movement along the X, Y, and Z axes. 

They have high precision and repeatability for cleanroom applications like inspection, testing, and dispensing. 

Cartesian robots also have a simple, open-frame design that is easy to clean and sterilize. They can also integrate various end-effectors for different processes.

Collaborative robots

Collaborative robots, or cobots, are meant to collaborate closely with humans.

To do so, they have built-in safety features like force-limited joints, rounded edges, and sensors to detect human contact. 

The idea is for Cobots to take over repetitive and ergonomically challenging jobs in the cleanroom.

Their small footprint makes them ideal for providing an extra set of helping hands where needed in the cleanroom.

Note that many types of robots (such as articulated or SCARA arms) can be collaborative robots. They also tend to be easier to program, though that’s not always the case. Look into a no-code robot if you don’t have programming expertise on hand.

Real-world applications of cleanroom robots

Cleanroom robots are very useful and highly sought-after in high-tech manufacturing environments requiring extremely clean conditions. 

Their precision and ability to work in confined, sterile spaces make them ideal for:

Making semiconductors

The microscopic components in computer chips and integrated circuits are extremely sensitive to environmental contaminants. 

Cleanroom robots handle extra-delicate materials and dangerous chemicals while maintaining the pristine conditions required for chip production.

Pharma manufacturing

Producing sterile drugs and medical equipment demands an immense level of cleanliness. 

These cleanroom robots can carry out repetitive jobs like dispensing, sealing, and packaging while slashing the risk of human error or contamination. Using robots also improves productivity and quality control.

Biotech research

Experiments involving living cells or biological agents call for tightly regulated, sterile environments

Cleanroom robots can achieve extremely precise manipulation and testing with very little interference. 

Aerospace assembly

Spacecraft and aircraft contain highly specialized components that must be kept perfectly clean during construction

Cleanroom robots are very well-suited for tasks like applying sealants, moving and positioning parts, and other repetitive assembly jobs in controlled environments.

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Advantages of cleanroom robots

Cleanroom robots offer several benefits for sterile manufacturing environments:

  • Keeping things sterile. Cleanroom robots have sealed casings and non-particle generating components that won’t contaminate the space. Robots can move materials and perform tasks without compromising sterility.
  • Making the process more precise and repeatable. Robots excel at repetitive, precise tasks. They can manipulate components with high accuracy and consistency, optimizing processes like assembly, inspection, and packaging. Robots eliminate human error and variability, ensuring each item is handled identically.
  • Improving safety and reducing human exposure. Robotic automation cuts down the need for humans to work directly in dangerous sterile environments. Robots can handle toxic chemicals, radioactive materials, and biohazards without risk of exposure or contamination. 
  • They keep going. Robots can go on and on with very few breaks (for maintenance and schedule stoppages) maximizing productivity. They don’t get tired or absent-minded and can operate day-in and day-out if needed. 

Design considerations for cleanroom robots

Cleanroom robots have special design requirements. 

What are they made of? 

Cleanroom robots are typically made of plastics, stainless steel, and aluminum. These minimize particles and static buildup. Ceramics or Teflon coatings are also available. 

Components must be sealed and smooth

All components like motors, drives, and cable guides are fully enclosed and sealed. Exposed parts have rounded edges and smooth finishes to prevent particle traps.

Non-shedding cabling

Wiring and cabling are tightly sealed and flexible to avoid snagging or abrasion. Special non-shedding cable materials that won’t fray or release particles are necessary.

Engineered to the finest detail

Cleanroom robots require high-precision parts and engineering to operate in confined spaces without the risk of crashing or disrupting something.

Drive systems and end effectors are finely tuned for accuracy and control.

Modular design for maximum efficiency

Many cleanroom robots have modular designs so components can be removed, replaced, or upgraded without entering the cleanroom. This reduces downtime and minimizes contamination risks during servicing.

Challenges of cleanroom robots

Cleanroom robots do face a number of rather unique challenges.

Let’s check them out: 

  • Their electronics are sensitive. Many cleanrooms contain sensitive electronics and equipment that can be damaged by even tiny particles. Cleanroom robots need to be constructed of non-particle-shedding materials that won’t contaminate the area. Their motors and actuators must be sealed to prevent particles from escaping.
  • Maintaining a delicate balance. Cleanrooms are highly controlled environments, so cleanroom robots need to be designed to not disrupt things like airflow, temperature, and humidity. They also need to be able to operate in areas with high electrostatic discharge without causing damage. Programming cleanroom robots requires in-depth knowledge of cleanroom procedures — unless you want to see issues. 
  • It’s a “clean” room for a reason. Before entering a cleanroom, robots go through a rigorous decontamination process to sterilize all parts. Once inside the cleanroom, strict protocols dictate how the robots move and operate to avoid re-contaminating the area or themselves. Robots may need to periodically decontaminate themselves while working to maintain cleanroom standards.
  • Nor for butter-handed bots. Many cleanroom jobs require high precision and immense levels of dexterity. Robots need multiple articulated arms or effectors to handle delicate components, instruments, and tools. They must have advanced sensing and control systems to provide the level of precision needed in these highly sensitive environments.

Summing up

So, to recap: Cleanroom robots are specialized machines designed to work in sensitive environments like manufacturing facilities for computer chips or pharmaceuticals. 

They help automate processes while maintaining workspace purity — an absolute must if you’re in a profession where sterile, controlled environments are key. 

Next steps 

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