Building a Packaging Line on a Budget

Machine providers and integrators share tips on minimizing cost of line design and integration

By Christina Elston


The reality at most medical device and pharmaceutical companies is that packaging is far from the primary objective. “If my core competency is making drugs, I don’t want to spend a lot of time putting them in a bottle,” says Tim Groff of Automated Packaging Systems (Streetsboro, OH). Packaging-line builders therefore may not have endless resources at their disposal for design and integration.

Building an efficient state-of-the-art packaging line can be done, however. Machinery manufacturers offer a range of services to build complete lines or units that can be easily integrated. Independent integrators are available to assemble varying pieces of equipment. And if you choose to design a line yourself, you’ve got the freedom to shop around.

The key to successful packaging-line design while on a limited budget is to focus your time, effort, and resources on meeting specific requirements.


You’ve got a product to package, but little, if any, equipment ready to handle it. So where do you start? Look around, and size up your capabilities and your requirements, say experts.

Space available. One important factor in line planning is room size. “That really can determine the amount and size of equipment you can put in there, and may become a limiting factor on the line speed,” says Stuart Harvey, vice president and general manager, IMA Nova (Leominster, MA).

If you’re planning to set up new high-speed packaging equipment in a facility built 20 or 30 years ago, you could be faced with buying or leasing more than expected, or compromising line speed.

NJM/CLI (Lebanon, NH) uses a simulator program to help determine whether the needed equipment will fit into the available space and still run at maximum efficiency. “That allows us to see if there are problems,” says Mark LaRoche, vice president of sales. “The worst thing to do is to starve a machine or keep backing it up.” Adequate space must be kept between machines to keep them running efficiently. Trying to change a roll on a labeler without enough space could mean stopping the line. A buffer table prior to the labeler will allow for roll changes without stopping the upstream equipment; if there is not enough room, the buffer table is often the first thing to leave out.

Prior experiences with equipment vendors. There can be tremendous advantages in maintaining a long-standing relationship with a supplier, says Bill Leib, senior packaging engineer at B. Braun Medical (Allentown, PA). “They get to know your needs, and your likes and dislikes,” he says.

One reason behind B. Braun’s decision to build packaging at its Dominican Republic facility around a Multivac R530 form-fill-seal machine was B. Braun’s long-standing relationship with the company. “Here in Allentown, we run strictly Multivac,” says Leib. “We were familiar with their machines and their company. We have a lot of history with them.”

Off the shelf or out of the box? Comparing your requirements to standard machine offerings from multiple vendors will help you determine how much machine customization—if any—is needed. Sticking to a manufacturer’s standards will help you control costs, but you may need some tailoring. Answering this question may also help you narrow your list of vendors. Jose Denis Santiago, an engineer at Janssen Ortho (Puerto Rico), found that he needed more flexibility in blister machine capability than many equipment makers were willing to provide. Santiago found a systems integrator that had just started making its own blister machines and relied on the firm for much of the integration. For more on his Santiago’s experience, see the story on page 64.

Future needs. Keep in mind that materials, capacity, technology, and regulatory requirements can change, and design a line that will roll with the punches. “If you can’t get 10 years out of a line, you’ve got the wrong suppliers,” says Groff, adding that most companies should be able to get at least a 5-year minimum. “Your equipment should be upgradable,” he says.

Determine your projected growth and the evolving regulatory environment in your planning. Also, consider whether you will need to add automation to the line in the future, advises Jim Sedgwick, southeast regional sales manager for the Medical Industrial Group at Multivac (Kansas City, MO). Planning a little extra space now for future robotic loading and inspection equipment, for instance, makes the line automation-ready and saves money down the road.


Determining the money, time, and engineering resources you have available will help you decide whether to hire a single-source solution provider, choose equipment from various vendors and hire an integrator, or go it alone.

Going it alone. Companies with available time and engineering resources might choose to plan, purchase, and integrate equipment in-house. Groff says that this scenario opens up flexibility with options and features on individual pieces of equipment, because the customer can choose a different vendor for each part of the line. The ability to shop around for each piece could also lower your equipment costs, he says.

However, because most medical device and pharmaceutical companies don’t set up new packaging lines regularly, they will likely need to pull engineers away from other tasks to handle purchasing and integration of the line. “The downside is that you’re using engineers that could potentially be doing other things,” says Harvey.

Another drawback to handling line integration in-house is that you have to coordinate the activity of your suppliers. And many companies underestimate how much is involved in line integration. “The line has to function as a system, and not as individual machines with some conveyor in between,” says Harvey. “There are just many, many factors that go into line integration.”

Validation is another area that can be challenging if machines are obtained from multiple vendors, says Kevin Carter of Uhlmann Packaging (Towaco, NJ). Validation documents will often be in varying formats with varying levels of detail, and you’ll need to meet with each supplier to get them into a common format. “If you’re dealing with a sole supplier, you only need to have that meeting once,” Carter says. “It’s a much cleaner system at the end of the day, and a single technician can support every piece of machinery on your floor.”

The SwiftPharm SP200 from IMA Nova electronically counts tablets on high-speed bottling lines.

Integrators and one-stop shopping. For companies with fewer in-house engineering resources and less experience at line integration, hiring an integrator or a single-source provider can be an attractive option.

Single-source solutions have been a huge trend in the industry, says Carter. During the past 10 years, 60% of Uhlmann’s efforts have been devoted to developing full-line capability. And 30–40% of its projects during the past five years have been turnkey projects.

With a good integrator, customers have the advantage of purchasing the equipment best suited to the needs of each task, and considering both cost and performance. “We don’t see a lot of need for all of the different components in a system to come from one supplier,” says Brian Raehsler of Remmele (St. Paul, MN). “We become a systems integrator for our customers. We bring it all together so that it behaves as a turnkey solution.”

The suppliers of larger and more-sophisticated equipment are often the most capable and experienced in integrating other components, says Steve Lipps, product line manager, horizontal wrappers, Doboy Inc. (New Richmond, WI). The company recently delivered a blister overwrapping line consisting of a Doboy Linium 311 horizontal-flow wrapper and a Doboy Presto robotic feed placer. “The ability to buy two key technologies for the line from one supplier was a large benefit to the customer. But the key to success was that Doboy was experienced in integrating other components and was able to source or integrate other packaging-line components,” Lipps says.

Optima Machinery Corp. (Green Bay, WI) also has close ties to the suppliers it works with for inspection equipment and final packaging. This means that in handling the installation and integration of machines with Optima’s filling equipment, they can reduce validation time and cost, says Uwe Kellermann, vice president of pharmaceutical operations. “It’s a smooth transfer,” he says. “There are very, very defined transfer points, and you can streamline your documentation package so that it all looks the same,” he explains.

And even though there is a price tag associated with the services of integrators and single-source suppliers, they can help reduce the overall cost of the line, according to Maria Grazia Preda, sales and marketing coordinator at Marchesini Group (West Caldwell, NJ). On a $500,000 production line composed of four machines, savings can amount to as much as 15%, she explains. These savings might include lower traveling expense for visits and progress meetings with various suppliers, lower test-materials costs and delivery expenses, and lower engineering costs for assembly, factory acceptance testing (FAT), line validation, and line controls.


Whether a company is working with an integrator, a single-source supplier, or a variety of suppliers, there are plenty of mistakes that can cost time and money.
Unclear specifications. Have product and package samples available. Also, confirm room size and plant preferences at the quotation stage to keep the process from being delayed. “The more details you work out, the fewer surprises later,” Harvey says.

Don’t put off taking care of details, such as determining how transfer from one machine to another will be accomplished, or which vendor will be responsible for this, advises Kellermann. “Some say, ‘Let’s deal with it later.’ This is very often overlooked,” he says. Eliminating gray areas and having “very, very detailed user requirement specifications (URS) and functional requirement specifications” will help keep you on budget and on schedule.

Testing trip-ups. Give enough thought to how your line will be tested. “Define how the line is to be tested prior to shipment from the supplier,” advises Lipps. “This will allow the supplier to prepare and add further clarity to the specifications. It will also affect the schedule.”

Also avoid using substitute materials and conditions (products, overwrap film, labels, speeds) during design and test time, as this “can cause issues to be missed or setups to be repeated, affecting the schedule and budget,” Lipps says.

IMA Nova integrates several pieces of machinery to build complete packaging lines.

Unclear expectations. Share complete details about how you expect the line to run with your suppliers. Multivac once dealt with a customer whose product came in two different sizes, but with a difference so slight it wasn’t readily apparent to the human eye. The customer didn’t inform Multivac of the difference, says Sedgwick, but assumed that automation designed to work with the larger size would also work with the smaller.

However, the automation jammed when the line ran the smaller-sized product and had to be redesigned. “It caused a lot of headaches and consternation and downtime before it was resolved,” Sedgwick says.

Being sidetracked by speed. Don’t make decisions about purchasing individual pieces of equipment based on claims of speed alone. “You have to look at the entire system and try to optimize its overall efficiency,” Darrell Tucker, applications engineer with Automated Tooling Systems (Cambridge, ON, Canada), explains. “It does not make sense to purchase one piece of equipment that can process 400 parts per minute if, down the line, another operation can only process 200 parts per minute.”

Another pitfall with the lure of speed is that the faster a piece of equipment operates, the tighter the tolerances must be on the parts being processed. “This will add to your material costs over time, thereby increasing the total cost of ownership,” Tucker says. Cost of ownership can also be higher when more robustness in design and material is required for a high-speed system to maintain its “long life,” Tucker adds. In addition, breakdowns can be more costly, he says

Lack of communication. Keep in constant touch with suppliers. “The successful supply of packaging machinery lines requires consistent and frequent two-way communication throughout the project, not just a few weeks before the FAT,” says Dave Schuh, vice president of sales and marketing at MGS Machine Corp. (Maple Grove, MN). Because many of their customers are managing multiple projects and may find it difficult to devote the necessary resources, MGS Machine assigns a full-time project manager to keep each project on track. “We’ve defined a process at MGS that prompts customers and tries to help them and to project-manage them proactively,” says Schuh.

One major mistake that customers make, says Jeff Jackson, project manager at Bosch (Minneapolis), is getting only their equipment personnel involved when they begin setting up a line. When operations and validation personnel are involved only after the equipment is ordered, their additional requirements can slow the whole process down. “All of the different disciplines that are going to be involved with it at the end need to be involved at the placing of the order,” Jackson says.

Keeping present and prospective needs in focus, and communicating them clearly to carefully chosen suppliers, can result in a packaging line that is still efficient and in service many years—or bottles, bags, or blisters—into the future.

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