As a global leader in the treatment of serious chronic diseases, Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk has invested extensively in advanced technology—including robotics— to help automate and optimize its manufacturing processes.

Novo Nordisk operates its own robotics lab in which engineers research ways to integrate robots into different aspects of manufacturing. Team members had been running experiments with Boston Dynamics’ quadruped robot Spot for two years, but only in controlled lab settings.

In January 2024, with the support of Boston Dynamics, the robotics team launched a pilot program to explore ways to integrate Spot into its manufacturing process. Novo Nordisk conducts extensive testing before introducing new technology to production. The pilot project meant bringing Spot out of the lab and into manufacturing areas to see how it could support employees on the factory floor.

“We are always investigating advanced technologies,” said Milad Jami, the Head of Robotics at Novo Nordisk. “We want to use robots to the fullest extent possible. Our goal is to ensure that employees can spend their time on more value-adding and complex tasks such as problem solving, rather than on repetitive tasks that are not always ergonomically friendly.”

“We are always investigating advanced technologies. We want to use robots to the fullest extent possible. Our goal is to ensure that employees can spend their time on more value-adding and complex tasks such as problem solving, rather than on repetitive tasks that are not always ergonomically friendly.”

Milad Jami, Head of Robotics

Starting Safe

The first part of Novo Nordisk’s pilot confirmed Spot could safely navigate narrow passageways in one facility, as well as areas where forklifts were in constant motion. Over the course of six weeks, the robotics engineers collected positive feedback from production and safety teams who were eager to see Spot on the shop floor.

“We showed the robot to different teams to get their opinions and feelings about this setup,” said another robotics engineer. “I would say all of them were excited.”

For members of the robotics team, it was essential to demonstrate that Spot was safe before exploring ways to integrate the robot into the manufacturing workflow.

“We have a lot of internal guidelines, standards and safety tests we do beforehand to make sure that when we actually get to the integration it will be successful,” said another robotics engineer. “But we were actually able to show that we can use Spot in a safe manner.”

Finding Leaks, Preserving Quality

Having addressed safety concerns, it was then a matter of working with production team leaders to identify different applications for Spot. The primary role that emerged was inspecting for air leaks, which are a primary source of energy loss in manufacturing facilities. The use of purified air also comes with challenges.

“If these technologies can help us ensure that we are producing at the highest quality standards as possible, we will do everything to utilize this technology,” said the robotics team leader. “We will never compromise on quality.”

The Fluke SV600 acoustic imaging payload for Spot helps automate air leak detection.

Acoustic Sensor Onboard

In April, Boston Dynamics loaned the Novo Nordisk robotics team a Fluke SV600 acoustic sensor capable of identifying air leaks along piping that runs through the manufacturing facility. The sensor identifies the distinct sound waves generated when air escapes under pressure. Searching for air leaks is the type of tedious predictive maintenance that is crucial for maximizing the efficiency and life span of equipment. In total, Spot was programmed to conduct approximately 300 inspection points, and the pilot proved promising.

For the team at Novo Nordisk, Spot can support the day-to-day tasks of inspecting and monitoring equipment. When Spot detects anomalies, production teams can plan maintenance and repairs before potential breakdowns occur, preserving uptime.

“Every production hour we can squeeze out of our equipment is valuable across the facility,” said a robotics engineer.

Helping People Adapt

Another crucial aspect of the pilot was garnering goodwill and buy-in from employees. The team did not want to force technology on employees, but rather ensure they were integral to the decision process from the start. This approach is part of establishing a collaborative culture between human and machine.

“We bring the end users into the picture so that once we are ready to deploy Spot, this is not completely new for them,” said the robotics team leader.

Research Continues

The various teams involved in the pilot project are in the early stages of examining the data Spot gathered. The pilot is a necessary step to approve deployment of the Spot robot. The robotics team is hopeful Spot will prove suitable for implementation in more facilities. They add that the project demonstrates how much work is involved with integrating robots, especially with more humanoid robots coming on the scene in the future.

“You would not just simply start with a humanoid robot for this specific application,” said another robots engineer. “Spot is an intermediate platform, but we are already moving up this learning curve to see how we can eventually start working with humanoid robots, as well.”

A robotics engineer interacts with Spot in a pharmaceutical facility
Milad Jami, the Head of Robotics at Novo Nordisk, tests Spot’s mobile manipulation capabilities

Problem First

An important aspect of the Novo Nordisk team’s mindset is that new technology should never become a solution in search of a problem. The role of the roboticist is to understand the strengths and limitations of robots, while also focusing on the problem at hand.

“We should always ask, ‘What’s the problem?’ We want to find the best solution for that,” said the robotics team leader.