Everything Old Is New Again
A drug-packaging group finds that refurbished and rebuilt blister formers offer up-to-date performance with reduced costs and lead times.
The forming station of a UPS4 from Uhlmann Packaging Systems before refurbishing and rebuilding. Uhlmann engineers handled the work in Towaco, NJ.
Increasingly, pharmaceutical packaging equipment engineers are seeking affordable ways to meet the industry’s high standards. “Everyone is under pressure these days to cut back on capital expenses,” says Joseph McManus, principal equipment engineer for Global Pharmaceutical Supply Group—North America (GPSG; unit of Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceutical Inc.). GPSG provides packaging support for a number of subsidiaries in the pharmaceutical sector. The success of those projects often depends on GPSG’s cost efficiency.
In 1995, another group within the pharmaceutical sector purchased a UPS4 Blister Machine from Uhlmann Packaging Systems LP (Towaco, NJ) for packaging trials of a new contraceptive product. The machine was used for initial prototyping runs; after trials, it was put in storage with equipment already owned and being stored by a sister company, “we saw an opportunity,” says McManus. “The UPS4 has a good track record—it is sound equipment. While it wasn’t brand new, it was serviceable and almost new.”
While recommissioning an existing machine would save capital expenses, it would also save time. “We could also save some of the lead time often required for new equipment,” he says. “Depending on how many orders your supplier had in the queue ahead of you, that time could be significant.”
The UPS4 was stripped down and had no accessories, says McManus. “Once GPSG secured the UPS4, I shipped it to Uhlmann’s Towaco, NJ, facility for refurbishing.” (Interestingly, right around the time GPSG had begun working with Uhlmann on the upgrade, Uhlmann was showcasing its rebuilding and refurbishing services at Pack Expo International in Chicago.)
Over the course of six months, the machine was gutted and then modified and retrofitted with various new features. According to Markus Haid, Uhlmann’s director of customer support and services, these features consisted of a new electrical-control upgrade package; hinged safety guards with interlocking switches; an extension of the machine’s mainframe; the addition of a dedicated feeding system, printer, fill control, and print inspection camera systems; a pick-and-place transfer section; and new format-change parts (tooling). Haid adds that the machine needed to be integrated into a line with automatic baggers for packaging pharmaceutical samples. Refurbishing took place in six months, about three months shorter than building a new machine would have required, says McManus.
Internal tests were performed prior to the GPSG visit, says Haid. Next, a factory acceptance test (FAT) was performed on the packaging line together with GPSG personnel. As the packaging line passed the FAT, the line was taken down, packaged, and shipped to the GPSG’s Raritan, NJ, plant.
Uhlmann personnel supported the installation and start-up and performed additional training for GPSG line operators.
McManus points out several noteworthy aspects to the refurbished UPS4. The blister machine employs a Simtap dedicated tablet feeder, which he says allows flexibility when feeding difficult-to-handle products. “Unlike a flood feeder, which feeds several tablets at once and relies on agitation for products to settle into the blister cavities, the Simtap orients and presents products to each blister cavity in an organized manner,” he says.
The forming station of the UPS4 after refurbishing and rebuilding. Restoring existing machinery eliminated the longer lead time and cost typical of new machinery.
McManus also had a VisioChrom HR inspection system installed from Uhlmann on the UPS4 for 100% product inspection. Employing a color line-scan camera, the VisioChrom HR detects presence, position, and color. “We use color to distinguish various strengths of the same drug, so we needed color inspection,” says McManus.
“We integrated the VisioChrom in such a fashion as to be fail-safe,” he continues. “Every index is considered to be a reject unless positively inspected and flagged as otherwise.”
During the transition of packaging these anti-infective samples from another, older machine to the refurbished UPS4, GPSG took the opportunity to change the samples’ secondary packaging. “We wanted to go to 20 blisters to a bag instead of one blister per carton,” he says. “We came up with a system to marshal, handle, count, and place 20 blisters into a bag on an automatic bagging unit. We tailored the eject system on the UPS4 to work with counters and baggers.”
With GPSG’s blister packaging needs still growing, McManus inquired about the possibility of purchasing and rebuilding a 20-year-old UPS4 sitting on Uhlmann’s factory floor awaiting a potential buyer. Using the previous conversion project as a guideline, this 20-year-old machine was rebuilt to match that machine’s new features and capabilities for an analgesic medication with its own unique specifications and requirements, Haid reports.
McManus was, again, able to employ the VisioChrom system when overcoming a slight challenge inspecting one particular strength of that pain-relief medication. Because the medication is a controlled substance, GPSG uses a PVC/Aclar film with an opacifier to avoid creating a visual “fascination for children,” he says. The trouble is that one particular strength is a white tablet, so the vision system would struggle looking for a white tablet against a white background.
Uhlmann devised a solution in which the blister was backlit from the bottom of the forming web. As the light shone upward, present tablets would appear as dark spots against an illuminated white background. In addition to installing the light, “all we needed to do with the VisioChrom was upgrade the software,” he adds.
Other features include a Metronic flexographic printer for printing lid stock that employs inks dried with UV light. “The print is clear and sharp with well-defined characters,” McManus continues. Uhlmann’s VisioRead optical character-recognition system verifies all printed material. “It also verifies the position of a registration mark, which is used to register the lid material with the base material.”
“The only differences between the two machines were that this second rebuild machine included a complete overhaul of the electrical control system, mechanical overhaul of the machine, the addition of two transfer chain conveyors, and a new tablet-lifting system,” he says.
Line integration with a C2155 cartoner from Uhlmann was also part of the project. Originally planned to be performed at Uhlmann’s Towaco facility, it was performed at GPSG’s Raritan facility.
The entire planning and rebuild/ conversion on the second UPS4 process took seven to eight months. Similarly to the first project, it concluded with a successful FAT at Uhlmann.
Once again, Uhlmann personnel supported the installation and start-up and performed additional training for GPSG line operators. Since the installations, GPSG has returned to Uhlmann for additional equipment and format-change parts for both of these machines. Also, after using the tablet-lifting system on the second machine, GPSG decided to purchase a second such system for its first machine.
GPSG found that having existing UPS4 blister-forming machines refurbished and rebuilt saved the company the expense of purchasing a new machine and eliminated the longer lead times associated with such a capital outlay. Adds Haid: “Essentially, the company only invested in the newer items being installed on the machine.” In addition, the company would no longer need to maintain the machine in storage.
McManus found the engineers at Towaco skilled at retrofitting, rebuilding, and refurbishing. While new equipment and skills often originate from a particular equipment manufacturer’s headquarters, McManus says that the Towaco staff handled “a good part of the work on their own.” He adds: “They could have called Germany if they needed to, but the Towaco staff were talented and met the challenges of the work.”