Capturing the Images and the Data

Inspection systems aren’t just passing or failing your products. They are also recording and analyzing data and may be transmitting them for further action.


by Daphne Allen, Editor

Banner Engineering's P4 Area is one sensor in the new PresencePlus P4 family.

Uses for inspection systems on packaging lines are increasing, perhaps because inspection technology itself is advancing. Bar code inspection is one popular use, and such systems are steadily progressing. In-line tasks such as detecting product and package presence are occurring more frequently, often with exacting precision. And other roles are evolving, such as verifying drug identity in-line. But instead of just rejecting out-of-spec packages, today’s inspection systems are capturing product information and feeding it to other systems, such as other machines or software systems.

Passing the Bar Code

Implementing an in-line bar code verification system can present packaging professionals with several challenges, depending on the bar code reading technology and on where the line verification is taking place, explains Andrew Zosel, OEM product manager for Microscan Systems Inc. (Renton, WA). “Verifying the bar codes on blister packs after they have undergone sealing deformation provides the most accurate inspections, [but] it can also be frustrating,” he says. “The symbols, such as Reduced Space Symbology (RSS)/Composite symbology, can cause alignment issues when read by laser scanners. Since they have very tiny row heights, they have very limited tolerance for any tilt in the laser beam as it runs across the bars and spaces of the composite portion of the code. High-density bar codes with low contrast and highly reflective surfaces combined with high line speeds can also create challenges.”

To solve these challenging applications, Zosel says that users will most likely need a robust imaging solution with aggressive decode algorithms. “Imagers in general are more forgiving of low-contrast codes and codes printed on reflective substrates,” he says. “Since they process images omnidirectionally, alignment is no longer an issue.” Microscan offers the QuadrusMini, which processes mega-pixel images, enabling it to easily accommodate large fields of view very-high-density codes on challenging substrates. It also allows manufacturers to read both RSS/Composite and 2D Data Matrix codes within the same image capture. Half the size of a deck of cards, the QuadrusMini provides quality grades based on both ISO/ANSI standards’ quality parameters as well as additional parameters unique to Microscan products. The QuadrusMini can also output both the decoded data and the bar code quality information in real time. However, the QuadrusMini is not designed to be a true verifier, says Zosel.

Tim Lydell, director of sales and marketing for Label Vision Systems Inc. (LVS; Peachtree City, GA), says that some companies are still a little confused about bar code verification, which he says involves verifying that codes meet ISO/ANSI standards. Earlier this year LVS announced that its Integra 9500 Bar Code Quality Station was certified by the GS1 (formally the Uniform Code Council) to meet UCC.EAN general specifications. Lydell says that this station is the only bar code verifier in the world to achieve this certification. The Integra 9500 already meets the specifications as required by ISO/ANSI standards for both linear codes and Data Matrix codes. The system uses a high-resolution camera that gives it the ability to inspect every 0.002 in. of the height of the code, far exceeding the ISO requirements of at least 10 reads, he says. The Integra not only verifies, but also analyzes the code to help users determine what and where the problem is. The Easy Spot feature colors in the problem area of the code so that fast corrective action can be taken.

LVS has also announced its in-line bar code print quality system, the LVS Integra 7000, at Interphex 2005 in April. “It can verify multiple 1-D or 2-D bar codes in any orientation at line speeds, generally with just one camera,” Lydell says. Provided as a turnkey system complete with camera, lighting, and PC-based processor, the LVS Integra 7000 can also handle optical character recognition/optical character verification (OCR/OCV) and inspect for human-readable text, blemishes, and sequential numbering, all at the same time, if needed, but is modular in design. “I’d like to get people to believe that they can inspect 100% of their bar codes to ISO standards as well as other print quality inspections at line speed, at a reasonable price,” he says.

Webscan Inc.’s (Brentwood, NY) TruCheck bar code verifier, which meets system grading requirements outlined by ISO 15415, is being used by several large pharmaceutical firms for off-line verification of RSS and other codes, reports Glenn Spitz, president of Webscan. To satisfy customer requests, the firm has developed a new system for in-line bar code verification, the TruInline. The camera-based system grades bar codes in the same way the off-line system does, but its “setup is geared to operate on a running machine,” Spitz says. “In-line verification is challenging because the system must capture and process high-resolution images at high speed, but the user benefits [in terms of immediacy] are clear. Specific illumination and high resolution are needed to produce accurate bar code grades. It is much different from just checking printed copy.”

While TruInline can be integrated with any packaging machine, Webscan has developed a user interface specific to blister packaging machines. This interface “allows users to specify blister layouts,” says Spitz. “TruInline keeps track of all the grades of all the codes on all the blisters, recording their locations.” Problematic codes can therefore be precisely identified.

Banner Engineering Corp. (Plymouth, MN) has just released its new PresencePlus P4 BCR vision sensor for reading advanced 2-D and 1-D bar codes, including Data Matrix ECC200, PDF 417, Code 128. The P4 BCR vision sensor interfaces to machinery or factory networks through a built-in 10/100 Ethernet connection or RS-232 serial input/outputs. The system gives each code a “grade level according to the nine parameters outlined by ISO 15415 and uses an Ethernet output to send the grades of the individual parameters to a database for process control monitoring,” says Steve Wong, corporate business manager for pharmaceuticals and medical devices of Banner Engineering.

Banner’s new P4 BCR system is part of the PresencePlus P4 family of sensors, which includes the P4 GEO, P4 GEO 1.3, P4 Edge, P4 Edge 1.3, P4 Area, and P4 Area 1.3. The sensors share a common graphical user interface, but each one is streamlined in software, firmware, and hardware to use a specific algorithm. For instance, one unit looks at the edge of a product, whereas another uses a BLOB (binary large object) tool that looks at product area instead of product edge. “We want to make sensing easy to use,” says Wong, “and we wanted to make it affordable to adopt vision sensing capabilities at multiple points in user applications.”

Systech International (Cranbury, NJ) announced in March 2005 that its TIPS Sentri system for machine vision inspection can grade RSS bar codes as they are printed in-line. “It provides accurate reflectance and dimensional measurements and is calibrated to NIST-traceable references,” explains Robert DeJean, president and CEO. Sentri’s software can process multiple inspections off a single camera or multiple camera stations connected to a single Sentri system.

Roll Call

Machine vision systems are increasingly being offered to inspect 100% of the product on a line to make sure that each product is packaged appropriately. A new system from Symetix, the pharmaceutical business unit of Key Technology (Walla Walla, WA), is Vantyx, which can be used for 100% inspection system for tablets, capsules, and softgels. Using spatial color analysis technology, Vantyx verifies product color, count, shape, position, and presence of print. It can be incorporated into blister packaging machines, flat-bed printers, and slat fillers. The technology is capable of inspecting up to 10,000 individual tablets, capsules, or softgels per minute, or as many as 360 complete blister packages per minute. When using up to six cameras, Vantyx can simultaneously inspect up to six different packages or six separate arrays of product. Each camera uses a dedicated image processor for maximum speed and image resolution. Vantyx is FDA 21 CFR Part 11 compliant and designed to meet GAMP 4 requirements.

To handle finished package inspection, Key Technology and Peco Controls (Fremont, CA) have formed the joint venture InspX LLC to offer ScanTrac 200, a high-performance, low-energy x-ray system. ScanTrac 200 inspects packaged products for foreign material contamination, detecting packaging imperfections and verifying contents. Inspecting as many as 2200 containers per minute, ScanTrac can operate at conveyor speeds of up to 700 ft/min. The system detects foreign objects such as metal, glass shards, rubber, and other dense foreign materials compromising products packed in cartons, cans, plastics, and glass. The system can also identify product voids and underfills as well as damaged containers. It can even verify that package components and product composition conform to specifications. Proprietary image processing software allows ScanTrac to inspect containers back-to-back, which eliminates the timing belts required by other x-ray systems. It can also be mounted over an existing conveyor, given its side-view operation.

Putting it all Together

Cognex Corp. (Natick, MA) has developed new software for its In-Sight vision sensors. In-Sight Explorer 3.1 makes communication of inspection results easier between other factory automation devices and other software programs, says John Lewis, public relations specialist for Cognex. “Insight Vision Systems aren’t just stand-alone units talking only to a programmable logic controller (PLC) to kick bottles off the line,” he says. “They are an integral part of an automation system and can be used at various stages of the packaging process to errorproof a line and improve process control.” The software’s In-Sight OPC Server, which allows users to create industry-standard OPC (object-link-embedded for process control) communication tags, makes it easier to exchange data with other OPC programs and systems, including PLCs, distributed control systems (DCS), and distributed I/O networks. In-Sight ActiveX Display Control allows users to easily integrate In-Sight images and display graphics into third-party human-machine interface (HMI) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) packages.

“This new software enables customers to realize tremendous productivity gains during development and integration by making it easier to display images and use data generated by In-Sight vision sensors for machine monitoring, supervisory control, and statistical process control,” explains Kris Nelson, Cognex’s senior vice president, vision sensors.

New software for DVT vision sensors, recently acquired by Cognex, allows the sensors to operate along the same lines as Cognex’s In-Sight vision sensors, but where a rugged IP 67 (NEMA 6) or IP 68 (NEMA 6P) is not required for washdown or dusty environments. Intellect 1.2 features communications enhancements to simplify data and image transfer and provide browser accessibility and tight integration with HMI and other industrial software packages. The new software also increases object-sorting efficiency by allowing a single tool to identify and count multiple shapes or colors. Intellect 1.2 includes faster image updates, a new OCV tool, custom drivers for robotic applications, and a preconfigured tool for label position and gross defect inspection.

Other systems are using vision inspection systems as just one component of a whole system for monitoring package and print quality. Nutec Systems Inc. (Lawrenceville, NJ) has coupled a SeaVision optical character verification system with its Wolke M600 thermal-ink-jet printing line, which uses Hewlett-Packard technology, and mounted them onto a conveyor as part of its Pharmacarton Coding System. With one controller handling printing and inspection, “the system knows the coding sequence and can verify it,” explains Nutec’s Mike Shaw. “Printing and inspection are taking place under absolute control.” A database-driven counter could be used and verified, even one that uses encrypted codes for track and trace initiatives, he explains.

VisioTec, an affiliate company of UhlmannPac-Systems Germany, with a branch office in Towaco, NJ, has developed a system together with Hapa and Wilco AG that combines several inspection steps and tasks within one machine. VisioTec’s philosophy to check 100% of packaged products in-line was incorporated in the Visio4U system. “Typically our pharmaceutical customers are concerned about quality improvement, worried about high costs in manufacturing and packaging, or are frustrated about low efficiency. We tried to solve these with the development of the Visio4U system,” says Christoph Lehmann, sales manager for VisioTec.

Visio4U is a four-part system for inspecting packages in-line. The Visio4U system is installed after blisters are sealed and punched out, so it can be considered a final quality instrument before the products move to downstream secondary packaging, he explains. It includes (in order of function) VisioLeak, a system from Wilco that uses vacuum and mechanical pressure to detect leaks in filled and sealed blisters at high speed. Holes down to 1 µm in size are detectable.

Next, VisioChrom, a matrix color camera system, checks product shape, position, color, and other elements to catch optical defects. This system checks the side of the blister that is visible to the end-user or patient.

If the package passes those two inspection steps, a drop-on-demand digital printer from Hapa prints all product information on the blister lid material. The final step is a print inspection with VisioTec’s VisioRead system. If this last step is approved, the blister is transported to downstream machines.

VisioTec also offers other systems outside the Visio4U package: VisioNIR near-infrared inspection devices for in-line analysis of solid-oral doses and liquid products as a PAT solution; VisioScan for 100% inspection of blister foil cavities and lidding materials for pinholes; VisioCount for noncontact counting of foil-containing blisters in closed cartons; VisioChrom/VisioPan for color/B&W inspection of products, VisioSlat for inspection on slat fillers, and VisioMark for laser marking of foil, cartons, and labels.

Systech’s TIPS Sentri machine vision inspection system works together with the firm’s TIPS Advisor packaging line automation, control, and information management system to help manufacturers improve productivity and product quality.

At Pack Expo Las Vegas, the firm introduced TIPS Serialized Product Tracking for complete mass serialization and track and trace of item-level products. The solution was designed to help manufacturers combat growing counterfeit and diversion challenges. The new solution leverages both the TIPS Sentri and TIPS Advisor platforms. 

Systech’s Len Valeo offers the following example. TIPS Serialized Product Tracking supplies track-and-trace serialization at multiple levels (unit, case, and pallet) and provides application and verification of those serial numbers in RFID tags and bar codes. It manages the uniqueness of the serial numbers, tracks parent-child relationships, accounts for rejected items, and stores event information in a secure database, making it available to enterprise information systems. Using an RFID writer/reader from Tagsys (Doylestown, PA) for encoding, the solution matches the serial number written to the RFID tag with the bar code data captured by TIPS Sentri. As the product moves along the packaging line, additional RFID tags are then placed on cases and pallets, providing content verification.

In concert, both RFID and bar code technologies ensure product authentication, pedigree, and chain of custody. According to David DeJean, Systech’s director of global PPM sales, serialized product tracking, RFID and bar code solutions, the solution follows standards proposed by EPCglobal.

These days, inspection systems aren’t just stand-alone tools employed to pass or fail packages. They are developed to play highly integrated roles on packaging lines that may be critical to line performance.

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