Designing a Packaging Line for Multiple Products

The packaging lines of today are expected to handle multiple products and package sizes with ease.

Erik Swain, Senior Editor

Vital washing, depyrogenation, and capping can be integrated with the Mini Aseptic Filling System from Bosch Packaging.

Up until a few years ago, an engineer looking for a way to facilitate the integration of pharmaceutical packaging lines might have assumed that the line would be running the same product on a consistent schedule. Essentially, the focus was on getting every part of the line to work right mechanically, easing the transition of product from machine to machine and maximizing the speed of the line.

Those priorities are still important, but the old assumption has given way to the new realities of technology, production practices, and marketing, forcing engineers to consider other things during the integration process. Many modern lines are expected to handle multiple products and package sizes, calling for flexible packaging lines and preinstallation planning. The result is increasingly complex integration projects.

"Over the course of time, there has been a change in the way companies look at their lines," says Brad Smith, vice president of Modular Packaging Systems (Pine Brook, NJ). "In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a trend of high-speed lines with bells and whistles. Now, with smaller runs and quick changeover requirements, you need to have flexibility in those lines, and you need to make the process as simple as possible."

FLEXIBILITY

In many cases, flexibility has replaced speed as the top priority for a packaging line. Because the increase in pharmaceutical products and package sizes has not generally been matched by a corresponding increase in the number of packaging lines a pharmaceutical plant may have at its disposal, many pharmaceutical companies try to produce more than one product on a line. And even if they use a line for a single product, chances are the line will need to handle a multitude of package sizes. More-specialized, limited-run packages such as physician samples are needed, in addition to the wide range of package sizes for retail display that are currently being offered.

On top of that, drug firms are trying to reduce inventory, which can lead to shorter packaging runs on shorter notice. "The pharmaceutical industry is following what already happened in cosmetics and foods over the last 5 to 10 years," says Jeff Ake, president of Equipment Express, a division of International Vision Inc. (LaPorte, IN). "There has been an explosion of different SKUs [stock-keeping units], bottle sizes and cartons, including completely new container technologies. This trend has forced equipment manufacturers to make equipment more adjustable and quicker and easier to change over. It has also necessitated the lowering of delivery time to customers."

To provide the versatility that is demanded, a line must have parts that can be changed quickly and that handle products seamlessly. "There has been a keen interest in reducing changeover time from one product size to another. One of our goals has been to make sure the packaging machinery does not wind up being the constraint to the size-change process on the line," says Dave Schuh, vice president of sales and marketing, MGS Machine Corp. (Minneapolis). "It has caused us to improve our standard designs to facilitate toolless changeovers and to use advances in electronics and software to better support the changeover process. For example, our most recent base cartoning machine has a fully integrated motion control system featuring a menu-driven product settings system for prerecording and automatically recalling setup parameters at the push of a button. The infeed buckets slide in and out for quick changeovers with no tools. Carton closing plows and guides are designed as removable subassemblies for each carton size and are easily removable and replaced by another set for another size. We've also really minimized use of preset counting devices. They mean another set point and another adjustment and take more time to reset and fine tune for each changeover. In total we provide greater flexibility while fully supporting toolless changeover."

PREINSTALLATION PLANNING

As they require their packaging lines to do more, drug companies can least afford problems leading to slowdown or shutdown. To lessen the chances of crippling downtime, all sorts of preplanning must occur. "Customers and equipment suppliers together need to understand how the whole line will be laid out, how the product will flow. This allows the identification of key and secondary throughput constraints to the line and helps us focus together on ways to add buffers to the critical path," Schuh says.

One solution, he says, is to equip the line with accumulation capability and automated retrieval. "We see customers installing short-term accumulation and buffer systems that would allow product to be stored within off-line," he says. "If a filler is running but the primary packaging system is not up for a short while, one option can be to provide short-term storage capacity and then refeed it back into the system. There is potential justification for that in the eyes of the customer, as it could lessen a constraint on the system."

Another thing to consider when designing a line is using standard equipment whenever possible, says Carl Larson, project manager of Bosch Packaging Technology (Minneapolis). "By having a baseline version available, the engineering package is complete, and we are able to almost immediately start on integration," he says. "A custom machine built for a dedicated line might lack definition, and that would delay integration activities and extend the overall project schedule."

Drug companies, which tend to have downsized integration resources in recent years, are seeing the benefits to having the major equipment supplier head the integration project, Larson says. They are also finding it can be beneficial to set up and fully test the line in the vendor's facility before installing it in their own plant, he notes.

"Full line–integrated systems behave quite differently from the single machines that comprise them," he says. "Many times a problem will surface during the line FAT (factory acceptance test). Machines may operate well in individual FATs, but once linked, the dynamics of the line may cause the individual machines to operate somewhat less than wonderfully. If you can discover where the shortcomings are prior to it being on the customer's site, the customer won't have headaches determining which equipment is causing the problem. And that will save valuable time in the long run."

As an extension of that, some equipment firms are working together to sell entire lines to drug firms as a single package. This makes the integration process much easier, says Greg Shane, sales director of Harro Höfliger Packaging Systems Inc. (Doylestown, PA).

"We have gone the route of looking for partnerships, as opposed to having the customer just choose a supplier for each machine," he says. "We come to the table with partners in different areas. The biggest advantage is that you know how each company operates. Once you've done a project for the first time, you've made your mistakes and you know what to avoid. It works well and is beneficial for the customer."

CONCLUSION

For pharmaceutical companies that are embracing new technologies, the challenges of line integration are expanding. In fact, "the system integrator field needs to be expanded," says Q. Richard Miller, senior project manager for consulting firm O'Neal Inc. (Charleston, SC). "There are more opportunities to perform that function than there are third parties available to do it."

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