Automating Bagging and Pouching

Manufacturers can improve a typically manual process through automation.

 

Kassandra Kania, Managing Editor

A Kenpak header bag, by Pechiney Plastic Packaging Inc., offers high seal strength.

Although the majority of medical device manufacturers continue to fill and seal bags and pouches manually, industry experts agree that the move toward automating the process is slowly taking place. Some companies are exploring investing in equipment designed to form, fill, and seal bags and pouches automatically while others are considering options that will help them move toward semiautomation. For these companies, the use of bags and pouches for medical packaging is considered more cost-effective than investing in expensive form-fill-seal equipment that requires skilled technicians to operate it. By moving toward automation, companies can improve consistency as well as increase output and save costs by reducing labor and inventory.

CHOOSING A MACHINE

According to experts, the types of medical products most suitable for automated bagging are low-profile devices consistent in shape and size. Once a company has determined that its medical device is appropriate for automated bagging, the next step is to decide what type of machine is most suitable for the process. "In most cases, where customers wish to automate, they tend to install equipment that forms, fills, and seals the package," says Michael J. Oberkirch, director of marketing for Rexam Medical Packaging (Mundelein, IL). "Horizontal and vertical configurations are both widely used, either by forming a four-sided sealed pouch or a thermoformed bottom web/top web–type package."

Wallace Noonan of the sales group for Wrapade Machine Company, Inc. (Saddle Brook, NJ), agrees that horizontal machines are most common because the four-sided seal has excellent integrity. "The company's horizontal pouch packaging machines are suitable for high-output packaging of products, such as scalpel blades, syringes, sutures, and soft items in peel-seal sterilizable pouches."

Optima Machinery Corp.'s (Green Bay, WI) MD Bagger is a fully automatic machine designed and developed for bagging medical apparatuses and kits. The machine is prepared for validation and consists of a product in-feed conveyor, a bag feeder, a product in-feed pusher, a controlled sealing drive, and a packaging discharge vacuum. "Customers wanted [the MD Bagger] for medical kits because some of the kits are too big and too heavy to process through a hand sealer," explains Stefan Schabel, Optima's engineering manager. "They feel that there is an ergonomic advantage [to automating the process]."

WHY AUTOMATE?

According to Vincent Price, sales manager for Optima, seal integrity for bags and pouches is more reliable using an automated system because it ensures a repeatable, reproducible process that creates a consistent seal. The key functions of the MD Bagger are monitored to provide reportable data to assist in the validation of the packaging process, explains Optima's Schabel. "If something goes wrong, the machine will detect it. If you use human capabilities, the seal can vary every time," he says. "They may use a different amount of pressure, or they might have a wrinkle in there. The machine can detect the flaw in the seal."

The Poucher 2000 from Centerville Manufacturing automates the picking, opening, and sealing process.

Switching from a manual operation to an automatic one not only reduces human error but also reduces labor—which translates into savings of both time and money. Beacon Converters (Saddle Brook, NJ) realized the need to automate the picking and opening process, and Centerville Manufacturing (Centerville, MA) developed the Poucher 2000 to address that need. This semi-automated process is designed to pick, open, seal, and print date code and lot numbers automatically, resulting in labor savings and increased production.

"There's a great deal of interest in automating the process," says Dan Brown, president of Centerville Manufacturing. "There's a huge labor savings to be gained as well as a time savings. The machine sets the pace for the operator, and the operator has to keep up with it." Gregory Dahl, special products manager for Beacon Converters, concurs: "One of the complaints my clients have is the time and labor it takes to load pouches," he says. "This machine enables the customer to increase output and, more importantly, make it a predictable output."

LeMaitre Vascular (Burlington, MA), a manufacturer of vascular surgery products, has been using the Poucher 2000 for several months to pouch its radiopaque marking tape and is already reaping the benefits. Prior to using the Poucher 2000, the pouches were opened, filled, sealed, and labeled by hand—a labor-intensive process that required three people. By automating the process, the company was able to relocate two workers and increase production. "We've noticed dramatically improved packaging times," says Andrew Hodgkinson, production supervisor. "We were outputting a little less than 2000 [pouches] a day without the machine, and now, with one person, we're outputting closer to 5000 or 6000 a day." For Hodgkinson, the most enticing thing about the Poucher 2000 was the price. "We have a volume of 100,000 a year so the cost of an automatic packager outweighed the gains. But this machine fell into a place where we could realize a one-year payoff on the machine through labor savings and output."

In addition to cutting costs, minimizing human labor can also help reduce the risk of contamination. "Automation reduces bioburdens in the cleanroom environment because people generate bioburdens," says Sal Beltrami, president of About Packaging Robotics (Boulder, CO). "The fewer people, the better." Manufacturers are also trying to eliminate labor because cleanroom space is expensive, he says. At 5 5 4 ft, the company's Twin ABS Poucher is cleanroom compatible and takes up minimal space.

Another advantage to automated systems is the reduction in material and inventory costs due to the elimination of pre-printed pouches. The Arpack 2001 pouching machine from Arndt Auto-mation & Associates (New Berlin, WI) is designed for this purpose. The system uses two rolls of film to form a pouch around the product. The pouch is then sealed on all four sides and cut. The in-line thermo-transfer printing feature reduces the need for large inventories of preprinted pouches.

WHEN TO AUTOMATE

Despite the potential benefits, automated bagging and pouching is not for everyone. Certain medical devices do not lend themselves well to an automated system. According to Optima's Price, automated equipment is not suitable for devices that vary in shape and size. "Automation works well for medical devices that are in the same case every time—the same size. At present, we don't have a machine that packages all shapes and sizes."

An assortment of Kenpeel Kenpak radiation packaging pouches, header bags, and strip bags from Pechiney.

Scott Keller, director of sales and marketing for Pechiney Plastic Packaging Inc. (Chicago), notes that auto-mation has its limitations: "A lot of medical products require custom packaging," he says. "Automated packaging in most cases does not offer the flexibility needed to run multiple sizes. Also, the cost of automated equipment cannot be justified for low-volume custom sterile packaging at multiple locations."

Oberkirch agrees that "automation is generally a function of volume. If you are not packing a high-volume item, it is difficult to justify the investment in automation equipment. If the volume is high, or growing rapidly, the investment in automation pays for itself more quickly by the reduction in labor costs and packaging materials."

CONCLUSION

While there are many advantages to automating the bagging process, some manufacturers may find the cost of equipment prohibitive. "One must weigh the difference between the cost of capital for equipment and the savings generated by lower labor and packaging costs," cautions Rexam's Oberkirch.

For some, unskilled labor may be easier to come by than trained technicians who are capable of operating sophisticated equipment. In addition, advances in materials and supplies, and products such as bags or pouches on a roll, can help companies improve manual processes and speed production without investing in expensive equipment (see sidebar). However, Kathleen Daly Mascolo, vice president, Beacon Converters, points out that equipment can be affordable. The Poucher 2000, for example, is about 20% the cost of a form-fill-seal machine, so the return for low-fill volumes is significant. As a result, automating bag and pouch operations can help manufacturers increase productivity and consistency with only a moderate investment.


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