The rise of the Dispensing Robot

Community Pharmacy is like any other competitive industry in that the pursuit of greater efficiencies and better customer outcomes is relentless. Over the last decade, against the backdrop of PBS reforms and the abundance of Discount Pharmacies, this pursuit has led an increasing number of Australian pharmacy operators to invest in ‘Automated Dispensing Machines’ (ADMs), also known as ‘Pharmacy Robotic Dispensing Units,’ or simply ‘Dispensing Robots’.

Dispensing Robots first appeared in Australian pharmacies in the early 2000’s and the technology has developed rapidly since. There is now a variety of makes and models with a range of capabilities and price tags. Basic models start at around $150k and go up from there, with some customized ‘integrated’ systems in the $300-$400k range. Some companies offer finance and rental schemes to help customers into the market.

So, what do you get for your hard-earned? The main allures are faster and less labour-intensive dispensing, reduced dispensing errors and improved stock management leading to better cash-flow. Some happy Robot owners report that their machine has completely transformed their dispensary, optimising floorspace and freeing up staff for more meaningful customer interactions.

They main drawbacks, aside from the initial investment, are repair and maintenance costs. Not all machines work as they should, and they require regular servicing, which generally costs around $10-$15k a year. The average lifespan of a Dispense Robot is 10-15 years, so it makes sense to go with an establish company that seem like they will last the journey. Some owners have come unstuck by buying from smaller robotics companies that have gone bust, leaving them in a predicament with servicing and repairs. Another thing to consider is that if you plan on selling your pharmacy soon after purchasing a Robot, you are unlikely to recoup your initial investment in the sale price, unless it has significantly improved your net profit in that time.

The conventional wisdom is that a pharmacy’s script volume needs to be at a certain level to justify the capital investment – at least around 200 scripts a day. This makes sense. In a small, one-pharmacist store doing 60 scripts a day, a Dispensing Robot probably wouldn’t be viable. However, not all small pharmacy owners should immediately rule one out. Certain models may be worth considering for stores with very limited floor space, or in remote areas where staff are hard to come by.  

When considering whether a Robot would be suitable for your pharmacy, it is important to do your homework. Consider what your long-term plans are for the business and research what is available on the market to help you achieve these goals. Shop around to find the best deal and make sure that you can afford not only the initial investment, but the ongoing maintenance costs.

Understandably, not everyone in the pharmacy industry is thrilled with the rise of the Dispensing Robot. Many are concerned about the threat posed to jobs, not only for pharmacists but pharmacy techs and assistants. Will they eventually replace pharmacy workers all together…? Robot advocates will say that the machines are designed to empower and free up pharmacists, not replace them, but it would be naïve to think that the more dispensing machines won’t result in fewer jobs. Ethical questions aside, from my experience speaking to Robot owners, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. As the machines become increasingly effective and affordable, it seems only a matter of time before Dispensing Robots are present in the vast majority of Australian community pharmacies.

– Will Brown, VIC & TAS Sales Manager at AP Group

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