Blister Machinery Solves Issues

Market trends have been influencing the development of new blister machines, designed to solve arising issues.

By Marie Redding
Freelance Writer

In an effort to ensure that the latest blister packaging equipment incorporates the necessary technology and functionality to fulfill customer needs, machinery manufacturers are paying close attention to production trends.  

Fargo Automation, in conjunction with Pharmaworks, developed an industry first: a high-speed WIP (work in progress) machine called the Blister Accumulator/Sleever.

“We are always listening to our customers’ needs, and it drives our machinery development,” says Ben Brower, vice president and sales director, Pharmaworks (Odessa, FL). 

Keith Bailey, regional sales manager at Körber Medipak (Clearwater, FL), has spotted a continuing trend in the demand for smaller batches of blisters, shipping to a greater number of countries from one factory. “More drug companies are merging, resulting in a consolidation of production facilities. At the same time, manufacturers are selling more globally. We’re even seeing smaller pharmaceutical companies going global with product launches,” he says. 

Smaller country-specific orders require each batch of blisters to be labeled differently, according to each country’s specific requirements. “We used to see our customers run a large batch size for the United States or Europe, but now we’re seeing pharmaceutical companies run many different smaller batches for different countries, and each has different markings,” says Bailey. “Due to this, flexibility in printing and packaging capabilities has become extremely important for suppliers,” he adds.

Dirk Corsten, managing director, Uhlmann Packaging Systems (Towaco, NJ), says that the trend toward smaller batch production is also the result of “many medications being customized … to accommodate specific user-group needs.”

Dustin Hanson, sales manager at Fargo Automation (Fargo, ND), says that machine speed is also affecting the pharmaceutical and blister packaging industries. “The faster the line speed, the more critical it is to keep the blister machine running. If you’re running at 400 per minute, every minute of downtime is 400 parts you’re losing,” he says. 

Hanson also says that secondary package design is also affecting the type of machinery being developed. “New designs for blister packaging, such as wallets, are requiring specialty equipment that may run at slower speeds,” Hanson explains. The blister is embedded between two pieces of card stock to form a wallet. “Some pharmaceutical companies use wallets because the blister can then stay somewhat generic, and the change in graphics is done on the card stock that makes up the wallet,” Hanson adds.   

Designed to Prevent Downtime
As blister machines are being designed to produce packaging at faster rates, any issues that arise, causing the machine to stop, will be more costly. To address this issue, Fargo Automation, in conjunction with Pharmaworks, developed an industry first—a high speed WIP (Work In Process) machine called the Blister Accumulator/Sleever. The supplier’s first accumulator/sleever was developed in 2007, but a few design changes led to the release of two of its latest models, the most recent of which was launched last spring.

The accumulator/sleever unit is designed to be placed right behind a blister machine. The unit acts as a process control between a blister machine and the secondary packaging machine. “It will allow the blistering machine to stay running if the secondary equipment downstream has issues, and vice versa,” says Hanson.

This new specialty unit also addresses critical issues regarding the production of new designs for blister packaging, which may require specialty equipment that runs at slower speeds. 

“Customers are buying one fast blistering machine and possibly taking that fast production and splitting it up into two or three slower, more custom secondary packaging machines,” says Hanson. “Doing this requires a machine that could take 400 or more blisters per minute and put them into a WIP system. Our accumulator/sleever unit will allow pallets of sleeves, each containing up to 200 blisters, to easily be carted—facilitating this process,” he adds. 

Uhlmann's Blister Express Center 300 handles format changeovers quickly.

A Printing Technology to Facilitate Small Batch Production
Running a large unmarked blister batch is a much more efficient production process that saves time and leads to a lower cost-per-unit. The trend toward smaller batch sizes, and the need to print each batch with different country-specific requirements, led Körber Medipak to develop new printing capabilities.

“We’ve been working on devising the best strategy to deal with small batch sizes for the past 5 years or so, and our solution, called Late Stage Customization, effectively decouples blister production from the cartoning process,” says Bailey. “The fact that we developed the technology to automatically store, retrieve, align, and print on the back side of a sealed blister is the reason our system works,” he says. 

The supplier began integrating this printing method into their cartoners a couple of years ago, and was the first in the industry to do so, according to Bailey. Its printing method allows pharmaceutical companies to produce blisters in large lot sizes coded with a 2-D Data Matrix code, but without any human-readable markings. The blisters are then automatically loaded in cardboard tubes and sent to inventory or a local secondary cartoning plant.  

“As small orders come in, the manufacturer will pull the sealed blisters from inventory and then print the required information in the country-specific language on the back of the sealed blister as part of the cartoning process,” says Bailey.

Traditionally, manufacturers print on the back of the blister foil when it’s flat, before the backing is sealed onto the base film, according to Bailey. “Once a blister is heat-sealed, the height variations due to the cavities and the texture in the seal area makes printing on the back more complicated,” he says. The company developed a cartoner that automatically unloads the blister from the storage tube. Then, it accurately registers the blister prior to applying print onto the blister. “The concept allows us to produce country-specific batches with 10-minute changeovers. This gives us and our customers a unique competitive edge,” says Bailey.

Large Formats, Designed for Speed
Also taking into account issues surrounding small batch production, Pharmaworks has developed new machinery. “Both our new machines are tailored to facilitate quick and easy changeover of tooling, a necessary feature when working with smaller batches,” says Brower. Additionally, Brower says affordable tooling is essential. 

Pharmaworks’s two new machines are the TF1 and TF1e, which was completed in July. A larger version, the TF3, will be introduced in the fourth quarter of 2010. The TF1 is a single-lane machine that was designed for quick production batches and can run blisters at a rate of 100 HUD blisters per minute. The new “e” version of this model is designed to handle larger format drug packaging, such as 30-day cholesterol-lowing regimens. The TF1e can form and punch very large sizes.

The TF1e has a small footprint, allowing it to be used in smaller spaces, which lowers operating costs. “Our first batch of machines has completely sold out—indicating a definite market need,” says Brower.

The TF3 is a larger format machine, for jobs requiring an increased output. Like the TF1e, it has quick-change tooling that easily loads through the front. It also has the ability to adjust to each station while the machine is in production. “Being able to tune the machine independent of other stations while the machine is running is an important feature,” says Brower.

Both machines incorporate the latest in control technology. “The TF3, for example, incorporates the latest in seal registration capabilities. It uses laser feedback ensuring that blisters are sealed correctly, regardless of material shrinkage or other factors that traditionally cause seal registration problems,” says Brower.

Uhlmann has developed a machine designed to address issues relating to small-batch production. “The industry’s move toward small batch production has created the need for more flexible packaging lines and quicker format changeovers,” says Corsten.
Uhlmann’s Blister Express Center 300 is a compact integrated system designed for this purpose. “The machine features the largest format area and quickest format changeovers in its category,” he adds.

The machine can produce up to 300 blisters and 150 cartons per minute, and one person can complete changeovers in 20 minutes. A large format size of 95 × 145 mm accommodates a wide range of applications.

One major advantage of this machine is the zero ramp-up time, according to Corsten. “After placing the few format parts into their allocated spots, without requiring the use of tools, the recipe for the next batch on the HMI can be called. The BEC sets everything to the right parameters and you’re ready to go,” he explains.

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