An Eye on the Future

The Automated Imaging Association offers a glimpse into industry trends that will increase the use of machine vision systems.


Pharmaceutical and medical device industries are under the same pressures as other manufacturing industries to do more with less and to deliver higher quality and value to customers. One way for companies to meet both demands is to automate their operations. Companies would be wise to employ machine vision systems in addition to relying on robotics and automation to mechanize their manufacturing, packaging, and labeling operations.

The Automated Imaging Association (AIA; Ann Arbor, MI) conducts a study each year to identify industries of potential growth for machine vision systems. While final results of the most recent study are not in, preliminary results suggest that the market for machine vision in the pharmaceutical industry increased 15—20% in 1997 to approximately $35 million following a 25% increase from 1995 to 1996.

Many companies with drugs under development are already moving to attain high throughput screening by automating. Many feel that their survival depends upon the speed with which they automate drug development.

In packaging, companies continue to shift toward using more plastic. Plastic containers are replacing glass containers, plastic and laminated flexible packaging is replacing paper, and plastic closures are replacing metal ones. Machine vision systems can both control the respective manufacturing processes and sort out products that would be objectionable to consumers.

In the case of closure manufacturing, machine vision systems can inspect injection molds to ensure that each cavity is empty before forcing a fill, thus preventing possible damage to the mold die. Machine vision can also verify product removal after the first eject stroke, thereby eliminating multiple eject strokes and increasing mold press cycle times.

Machine vision options are now being offered by a number of suppliers of automated and intelligent labelers to ensure label quality as well as placement accuracy and consistency, and to verify date/lot code imprints via OCR or 2-D symbology reading. The increased use of pressure-sensitive labels has also driven the adoption of automated and intelligent labelers with product/label verification systems.

The dietary supplement industry, which has heretofore been less than sensitive to labeling concerns, is coming under increased FDA scrutiny and developing a heightened awareness to consumer concerns regarding label and package issues. This should result in the increased use of machine vision in this market niche.

Because of vision systems, packaging lines are becoming more flexible without sacrificing throughput. When simple sensors are used to verify line functions, changeover times inevitably increase and physical position changes are often required. A machine vision—based sensor system can be set up once for each product or package handled by a line, and changeover can be initiated easily through a single graphical user interface. This changeover could even include physical changes in camera optics with computer-controlled zoom lenses or servomotors.

Perhaps the most important trend affecting machine vision is the recognition that data can yield insights into machine performance and line productivity on a function-by-function basis. Machine vision is fundamentally one of the most intelligent data collectors. Interpreting and acting on the trends detected by machine vision systems can make filling and packaging lines far more productive while delivering optimized quality.

Given all these market drivers there is no question that machine vision is being pulled into the pharmaceutical packaging line. Engineers should consider employing such systems to ensure product quality while expediting their operations.

Nello Zuech, president of Vision Systems International (Yardley, PA), a consultancy specializing in machine vision systems, writes the annual Machine Vision Market Study and Forecast for the Automated Imaging Association, the industry's trade group. For more information about the association and the market study, contact AIA headquarters at 313/994-6088 or visit the association's Web site at

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