Building a Blister Line

Daphne Allen

, Editor

Watch Sharp Corp.,s new high-speed blister packaging line, even for just a moment, and you might get dizzy. "It spins with such speed and technical efficiency, churning out carton after carton," says Larry Blake, Sharp's marketing manager. Because of its speed--up to 1200 blisters per min-ute, into nearly 400 cartons per minute--the individual blisters or cartons often look blurred as they move so quickly down the line.

Sharp (Conshohocken, PA) installed the high-speed line this past fall to package high volumes of one product for one pharmaceutical customer. Made up of Uhlmann Packaging Systems' UPS 1070 thermoformer and cartoner, Uhlmann's vision and bar coding systems, and Pester Pac Automation's bander, case packager, palletizer, and transfer equipment, the line was a sizable investment. But worth it. "Because we had a consistent demand, we wanted to increase daily output without increasing labor, and this line more than met our goal," says Sharp's vice president of sales and marketing, Bill Walker. 

A close look at Sharp's installation--as well as some recommendations from a few other contract packagers--will reveal some considerations necessary when installing blister packaging lines. Of course, there are distinct differences between the machinery needs of a pharmaceutical firm and those of contract packagers. But those needs aren't as different as you may think. 

According to Walter Berghahn, director of sales and marketing for Uhlmann (Towaco, NJ), those in the market for a blister line should think about "required output, types of materials, length of runs, product and packaging environment requirements, available space, available manpower and technical expertise of that manpower, and anticipated future use."

John Soporowski of Annuity Packaging Systems Inc. (Old Bridge, NJ) suggests a similar list, adding that firms in need of an integrated blister and cartoner line "should review current and future potential carton styles and sizes to avoid impeding a line's output." His firm provides packaging, printing, and inspection equipment from several different manufacturers, including Klockner Medipak (Clearwater, FL).

OUTPUT 

As Walker explains, Sharp wanted a workhorse of a blister line that could be dedicated to high-volume products. To meet the customer's demand of 120,000 to 140,000 packages per shift, Sharp decided to integrate as many functions as possible into the line, reducing the need for human labor at various stages, which could slow the line or introduce errors. Thanks to dedicated feeding equipment and transfer mechanisms between the blistering and cartoning units, all tailored for one blister format and size, the line runs with minimal oversight at high speeds, generating the high volumes. "It is so fast, operators wouldn't be able to keep up with certain functions," Blake says. Apart from shift supervisors and end-of-line operators, the only task humans handle during operation is stocking the line, which spans two newly built rooms. 

Blister size also affects output. Says Soporowski: "Output is a factor of how many blisters can be formed each cycle, times the number of cycles, and the amount of linear feet of material drawn through the machine."

Output and speed may also depend upon feeding. "On any machine, your ultimate limitation is likely to come from product feeding, not the machine itself," says Berghahn. "Every manufacturer has been working to increase blister manufacturing speed, and several companies have broken the 1000/min barrier, Uhlmann included. It's a matter of optimizing temperature, pressure, and the results of forming materials. This means up to 70 forming cycles per minute. However, most dedicated feeders start losing efficiency beyond 50 cycles per minute, through no fault of the feeder "at some point, you depend on gravity. And gravity only has one speed." One larger feeder covering two forming cycles can increase feeder throughput, he explains, "like running 35 cycles over two indexes delivering 70 cycles output," but this increases feeder cost and complexity. Sharp chose a standard feeder given the cartoner's output of 400/min. With the line's current configuration and the flexibility of custom tool sets, Sharp can thermoform in excess of 800 blisters per minute, achieving a 2:1 ratio of blister foil units (BFUs) to cartons. If Sharp sees demand for three BFUs per carton, it can upgrade to the larger feeder. As of today, Sharp hasn't seen that demand.

FLEXIBILITY 

But not all firms need high volumes of one product. They may want one line for different products, or one line for one product for a while and then for others in the future. Such requirements will influence your purchase. "The volume of products to be packaged, as well as the frequency of package format changes, affects your blister machine purchase," says Bill Armero, general manager of Caraustar's blister package operation in Pine Brook, NJ.

Sharp recently invested in two smaller lines specifically for their flexibility. "More and more of our customers are asking us to run smaller volumes of multiple SKUs. For example, a major customer that is rationalizing its internal operations has asked Sharp to run 12 different products, all in low volumes," says Walker. To handle low-volume projects, Sharp chose two of Uhlmann's Blister Express Centers. They create one blister at a time at speeds up to 100 blisters per minute. Using Uhlmann's UPS 1010 thermoformer, C 2065 cartoner, and E 3006 bander in modular form, the centers are fully integrated. Small tooling sets cut changeover to 15 minutes.

Doug Hill, Sharp's vice president of operations, adds that less labor is re-quired for changeover. Walker says the centers allow Sharp to offer "more cost-effective pricing on smaller volumes and orders with multiple SKUs."

Klockner Medipak will soon deliver a blister line capable of producing more than 500 cartons per minute and maintaining high flexibility, Soporowski says. "It will allow high production rates for rapid turnaround and large numbers of cartoned blisters."

MATERIALS 

Blister line providers recommend that users consult materials suppliers before investing in a new line. Warren M. Roman, president of machinery manufacturer IMA North America (Bristol, PA), says "it's always best to form a team at the start of a project, which includes any involved suppliers."

But far too many customers don't, and problems can arise. "With today's state of the art, lines are faster and more aggressive. Older material structures aren't designed for these newer blister lines," says Greg Young, technical service manager for Alcoa Flexible Packaging (Richmond, VA). "Many of today's lines use fast rotary sealers, but some older structures activate at high temperatures and are better suited for slower platen sealing. If a customer is changing equipment and planning to use structures used for older products, they may run into problems. If we know about it early, we can suggest changes, like a different coating, or a new material."
Young says that a simple blister-line change involving the addition of an in-line printer may also require material evaluation. "The printing method and ink may not be compatible with the material's overcoat, for instance."

Angela Roggenhofer, Hueck Foils' (Wall, NJ) healthcare marketing manager, also sees the potential for problems. "We've seen tooling manufac- turers specify tight printing tolerances for printed foil that nobody in the industry could ever hold, which were even unnecessary. Once the machine was installed, the customer had nothing but trouble. If we had been consulted during the spec process, we could have saved the customer a lot of headaches."

Many machinery makers, though, can spot potential problems. Rick Sury, director of strategic partnerships for Alcan Packaging, Margo (Quebec, Canada), says that while consulting material providers is not a bad idea for benchmarking, in most cases machinery manufacturers are aware of material specifications and requirements. "The major machine producers know the materials very well and can be used as a source of information."

EXTRAS 

Today's state-of-the-art blister lines also include inspection systems and printers. To benefit from them, careful integration is a necessity. Soporowski says that some additions "afford quality control or improved performance, but are not mandatory. Driving their purchase is the need for automation, quality control, and operating efficiency."

Vision inspection systems can often meet all three needs. "A vision system can inspect a package quickly passing by with a greater accuracy than a human eye in most cases," says Steve Antonacci, president of I.C. Technologies Inc. (Dewitt, NY). "Certain inspections cannot be performed by operators, such as pinhole detection and product checks with spectroscopy."

Those considering in-line printers should answer the following questions, says Jim Umbdenstock, vice president of Griffin-Rutgers Inc. (Ronkonkoma, NY), a provider of labelers and coders. "What label copy is required? How often does it change? How many different blister configurations and label copies will there be? How many different carton configurations will there be for the various blister layouts? What volumes are required?"

Jack Moyle of Adolph Gottscho (Union, NJ) says that motion and speed are also factors. "The printer has to move at the same speed and motion of the machine. Platen printers work best for intermittent-motion machines, and rotary printers are best for continuous-motion machines."

Every blister line needs a deblister machine, says Ernie Gehlert, executive vice president of Gemel Precision Tool Company, Inc. "Many times there are blister card rejects due to misfills, misprints of lot numbers or expiration dates, marketing changes, or separation of product and package for disposal. Automated product recovery with a deblistering machine eliminates the need for hand deblistering, which is time consuming and not cost-effective."

REDEPLOY 

Cost is also likely an issue. Armero says "machine costs and potential paybacks need to be analyzed." But cost shouldn't be the only issue. A blister line can bring efficiency and innovation to your operation, and possibly improve your product and its position in the market. And a blister line set up for one product can also be redeployed if product demand suddenly dries up. Contract packager Sonic Packaging Industries (Westwood, NJ) counts on such flexibility at its locations, knowing that needs can change overnight. "We try to have the equipment and facilities in place to meet customer needs," says president Howard Thau. 

Since Sharp chose units that could be redeployed through tooling changes or broken up and used on other lines, it is prepared for any scenario.

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