Five Machine Features Your Line Needs

Experts say that you cannot afford to do without these key machine attributes.

Daphne Allen


Packaging equipment is quite an investment—and not just a financial one. You will need to rely on these ma-chines day in and day out to produce the very means of maintaining the integrity of your pharmaceuticals and medical devices. 

So how do you find the machinery that meets your requirements? It isn’t always the latest and greatest machinery available, says Patrick Ditchfield, market development manager for medical packaging for Multivac (Kansas City, MO). “It is about finding the balance among all your requirements,” he says. He adds that capital budgets are, of course, a factor, and may make your wish list more realistic. 

There are some qualities you just shouldn’t do without, say experts. For easy integration into packaging lines, your machines need to be dependable, flexible, easy to validate, efficient, and compatible with other machines.


John Merritt says that machine de-pendability is critical to any integrated packaging line. “Dependability and reliability are paramount,” says Merritt, formerly managing director of Tiromat Medical Packaging and now president of Merritt, Myers Inc. (Dallas). “If you cannot produce consistent product with minimal machine stoppage, it doesn’t matter if you can operate at high speeds or not.”

Merritt says that machines must be robust. For example, “it means that your cappers apply consistent torque and that your case erectors consistently fold and glue the flaps. And the machinery operates with minimal downtime.”

Another key to dependability may be quick problem resolution. To this end, Multivac’s chamber packaging machines come equipped with a self-diagnostic tool for minor maintenance fixes. Operators can trouble- shoot symptoms occurring on any Multivac chamber package without paying for costly maintenance. A diagnostic menu on the machine’s control panel can help operators identify problems by pressing buttons corresponding to machine elements, such as a seal bar or a vacuum valve. Once identified, operators can replace the part and immediately bring the machine back into production, reducing downtime.


The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) says you want greater flexibility in your packaging machinery. PMMI says that you’ve been seeing an “increase in varieties of products, product sizes, and product configurations that packagers must run on the same packaging lines,” according to its most recent Purchasing Plans Survey. As a result, “the need for greater flexibility to handle the dissimilarities and to speed changeovers is growing exponentially,” PMMI says in its report.

PMMI’s statistics provide the proof. Slightly more than 59% of its sample reported plans to order packaging machinery this year to gain greater flexibility in handling a greater variety of products and package sizes. Also, 61.3% of the machines ordered by the sample in 2003 are the result in some way of a need to gain greater flexibility.

But what does such flexibility really entail? PMMI points to easy change-over as part of the equation. In addition, some experts say that flexibility depends upon a machine’s ability to communicate with other equipment on the packaging line.

Kevin Carter of Uhlmann Packaging Systems (Towaco, NJ) says that flexibility is the number one request on his customers’ lists. “They are facing smaller batch sizes and shorter campaigns, so they need flexibility,” he says. “They also want low inventories, so they aren’t looking for 400 packages a minute.” Carter says that interest in his firm’s Blister Express Center has grown significantly since the system’s introduction in 2000. One of the hallmarks of this system is that it only requires 15–20 minutes for changeover.

Quick changeover requirements and minimum changeover times appear more and more in specifications these days, says Tim Allen, regional sales manager for MGS Machine Corp. (Maple Grove, MN). The firm provides cartoning, case packing, blister card, and other machinery along with system integration services. 

Ditchfield agrees. “When it comes to changeover, labor costs are high. The downtime associated with it is a huge opportunity cost.”
Multivac offers a system on its form-fill-seal that facilitates rapid changeover. “The machines can be built with different tool sets so they change over by themselves,” Ditchfield says. “Dies, software programs, temperatures, speeds, and other elements can be configured in advance for changeover on the fly.”

Dave Schuh, vice president of sales and marketing for MGS, says that all new equipment that MGS introduces offers toolless changeovers. “Change-over is accomplished electronically with human-machine interfaces or combined with pretooled components that are removed without tools and replaced with other pretooled components.”

Flexibility may also mean having a contingency plan in place, says Merritt. “If your packaging line has four machines, each with 95% reliability, that means your line is 80% reliable. If that’s the case, which it often is, you’ve got to have a contingency plan in place.” With four units on a packaging line, for instance, you may need the ability to divert product from one machine should it fail, he says.


“Validation is everybody’s hot button these days,” says MGS’s Allen. “But since having the machinery supplier validate its machine’s process is like having the fox guard the henhouse, we arm customers with documentation to support their validation or the efforts of a third party.”

Schuh says that MGS can provide documentation to support a client’s validation process even before the machine order is filled. “We have un-populated functional specifications for all base machinery models and have developed our own factory acceptance test (FAT) protocols, which we can give to customers so they can finalize work on their user requirements specifications before the order is filled. When the order is being executed, we can more efficiently complete installation testing, operation testing, and performance testing (FAT) efforts at MGS. Our documentation makes it easier for customers to complete their validation work.”

Ditchfield adds that redundant sensors help machine users during validation. “You could have one machine sensor tell you that a die is closed, and another tell you that it is not open. Or, you could have one sensor tell you that temperature control in a particular area is good, and another sensor tell you that the first sensor is correct.”

Time is also an issue, says Ernie Bancroft, eastern regional sales manager for Klöckner-Medipak/Dividella/Rondo Packaging Systems Division of the Körber Group. “Delaying the introduction of a drug to market costs money, so you want machinery that can be validated in a short period of time” he says.


Speed is important, says Bancroft, “but you need to be efficient,” he says. “Expensive drugs cannot have a lot of scrap, so you must have systems in place that operate at high yields. Flexible machines are not always known for their speed,” he says, “but they could be more efficient than faster machines. Machines designed for rapid changeover may not be as fast, but they could outperform more dedicated machinery because they require less setup and conversion time. They could fulfill diverse inventory needs, which may be the efficiency your operation needs.”

Schuh points out that PMMI’s study revealed that throughput is high on purchasers’ lists, and high throughput requires efficiency. There’s a “continued emphasis on improving productivity and efficiency through the purchase of high-tech packaging machinery,” writes PMMI. 


Compatibility could simply mean that the new machine fits into your line. “There are lots of details you can ask your machine supplier to adjust, like height and footprint. The design and configuration should line up with your existing units,” Ditchfield says.

Compatibility could also mean that a machine communicates well with other machines. “The new machine could have the same control system that your existing ones have, or the control systems could be built to talk to one another,” says Ditchfield. 

Walter Berghahn, director of sales and marketing for Uhlmann, adds that there should be common interfaces between machines so that “start and stop signals can be synchronized.”

Bancroft suggests that the use of open architecture and controls also makes machines more compatible with one another, easing integration. Klöckner Medipak offers what Bancroft calls a Generation 3 blister machine, the CP-600. The servo-driven machine uses a controller that facilitates motion control and PLC logic, he says. It also employs a PC-based interface called KIVI (Klöckner Internet Visualization) with extensive help functionality for troubleshooting and an open TCP/IP interface to the customer’s network. 

John Kowal, global marketing manager for ELAU Inc. (Chicago), adds that with open architecture, “you don’t need to relearn or reengineer an entire system when there is a common look and feel, connectivity, and interoperability. Standardization also applies to pretested, reusable software libraries that can streamline validation. Specifying open architecture is a lesson that pharmaceutical firms are borrowing from the consumer packaged-goods industry to improve operational efficiencies by introducing consistency and commonality across the global enterprise.”

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