Hoping for a Better Bottom Line

Ergonomics, labor costs, waste, and other concerns are no laughing matter in the quest for more-efficient packaging lines.

By John Conroy
 
BellatRx offers an automated system for recovering products from filled and sealed bottles. Line operators no longer have to remove bottle closures and induction seals by hand.

In a widely beloved episode of I Love Lucy, our heroine and her sidekick, Ethel, have the job of wrapping chocolate candy in paper as the bon-bons stream past them on a conveyor belt. The pair’s futile efforts to snatch and wrap each piece as the packaging line speeds up make for a classic comedy moment. Much hilarity ensues.

Should a similar moment take place on today’s pharmaceutical or medical device packaging lines, there’d be little cause for hilarity, Lucy fans or not. Operating in an increasingly competitive business environment and confronted by tighter budgets, companies are faced with finding ways to run more-efficient packaging lines.

The demand for increased production puts many line workers in a position not unlike Lucy’s, acknowledges Steven Bennewitz. A sales engineer for Packaging Systems Automation (Plymouth, MN), Bennewitz says purchases of the company’s automated cartoning equipment and product placers have picked up recently. The main reason is cartoning’s repetitive nature. The problem is particularly acute for the small “mom-and-pop shops,” he says, where workers are more likely to hand-assemble container after container after container.

“We can design and build machines that will run 400-plus cartons a minute,” Bennewitz says. Imagine trying “to pump out 400 cartons a minute by hand.” Told that the scenario recalls the famous Lucy episode, Bennewitz replies, “Exactly.”

Bennewitz says companies are turning to automation in order to reduce the rate of personal injuries and workers’ compensation claims. He hears from customers that their employees are coping with medical problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and bad backs.

Walter Langosch, sales and marketing director for ESS Technologies (Blacksburg, VA), agrees that the need to get more out of existing lines is one of several reasons fueling increased business for automation specialists. ESS “has definitely seen a trend toward greater automation of our customers’ packaging lines.” He cites several factors behind the trend, including the use of robotics to alleviate the very types of ergonomic problems Bennewitz cites.

ESS Technologies Inc. offers Bergami�s new Model TF 80 automatic tube filling and closing machine for metal, plastic, polyfoil, and cassette-infeed tubes. The TF 80 can be integrated into a complete packaging line in sterile rooms and underneath laminar flows for a full turnkey solution designed by ESS Technologies.

“With the addition of robotics equipped with line tracking and vision, these tedious repetitive-motion applications can be automated, allowing manufacturers to reassign valuable personnel to other responsibilities in the plant,” Langosch says. “Multiaxis robots can load multiple items into several stations at the same time via electronic line tracking to maintain continuity with the packaging ma-chine. Integrated vision can verify product placement and product quality, while maintaining a fail-safe vigil on productivity.”

Another factor driving the automation trend is new product introductions and product acquisitions that “require manufacturers to use existing product lines to package new products,” he says. “The challenge is to integrate these products while maintaining efficiency and productivity and dealing with additional changeovers.”

ESS conducts production-line “audits” to help determine the “best and most affordable method” to expand line capabilities. The goal is to increase flexibility, reduce changeover controls, and incorporate flexible robotics for several functions relating to machine loading and unloading, product collation, and end-of-line automation, Langosch says.

Increased productivity of horizontal form-fill-seal and blister machines used to package pharmaceutical products and medical devices is also fueling the automation trend, according to Langosch. “Currently, 85% of these machines are fed manually, a process that relies on the continuous speed and dexterity of employees in a repetitive-motion application,” he says. In addition, a manufacturer often relies on the employee to inspect the products and place them in the thermoformed tray or blister pack.

Manufacturers are increasingly using automated processes to assemble diagnostic products and medical devices, Langosch points out. “Automated handling and feeding of components, step-by-step inspection, and a combination of hard automation and multiaxis robotics allow the manufacturer to automate the entire process, including assembly, inspection, packaging, and testing, with limited human intervention,” he adds. ESS Technologies recently designed an automated medical device assembly and packaging process that integrated 16 pieces of feeding and packaging equipment, incorporating eight multiaxis robots, vision, and inspection. The resulting application reduced the customer’s required personnel from 15 to five people and doubled production output.

Jerry Hirsh, marketing manager for Multivac (Kansas City, MO), says his company’s customers are using automation “to minimize labor cost, reduce rework and bad packages, and eliminate contamination in the cleanrooms.” He also notes that “pricing pressure” from overseas labor costs is behind the automation trend, as customers upgrade their lines in order to stay competitive.

PRISTINE AND PROTECTED

Regarding contamination, Hirsh says it is common for manufacturers of biological products such as human growth hormones to automate their processes. “These types of products have a very strict handling protocol that must be maintained, and these products have a higher profit margin than medical devices,” he points out. “This allows them to automate complete lines to maintain validation with FDA.” Typical packaging formats for injectables include vials and prefilled syringes.

Highly potent products such as cytotoxic drugs are driving isolation for sterile and aseptic applications so that machines do the dirty work. “OSHA requires that people working with such products be protected,” says Warren Roman, president of IMA North America (Bristol, PA). “I see isolator technology being put to even greater use in the future for sterile applications because of the need for such protection. We also see crossover and continuity from the processing line to the packaging line to ensure worker safety.” IMA is devising solutions. Its recent introduction is a compressed sterile line called MAC that can run 100 vials per minute.

The different levels of protection can go “as far as full encapsulation of the filling process,” says Dirk Corsten, managing director, sales and marketing, for Uhlmann Packaging (Towaco, NJ). Uhlmann offers a number of different levels of protection, depending on whether the manufacturer needs to protect the operator from the product or the product from the operator, he says.

A powder put into a blister for an inhalation device, for example, requires “probably the highest” operator protection, Corsten says. The most basic contamination protection involves placing a guard over the filling section, he adds.

OEE

Fueled by the industry’s overriding concern with overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), the upswing in automation has been a mixed blessing for Uhlmann, Corsten says. “It’s not necessarily driving demand for new equipment over a period of time,” he points out. On the positive side, however, manufacturers have hired Uhlmann to upgrade existing equipment in packaging lines that are eight to 10 years old. Improvements include “a more-optimized” human-machine interface (HMI), new software, new PLC, and installation of servo drivers on some line components.

OEE, Corsten notes, takes into account all stoppages, breaks, and changeovers. Upgraded lines running at an average OEE of 25–30% have improved to between 60 and 70%, he maintains. “Slowly but steadily, pharmaceutical companies realize the equipment is underutilized by comparison with the semiconductor industry,” Corsten says. Changeovers with some highly flexible machines “literally take 15 minutes as opposed to 2–3 hours, which used to be the norm on older machines,” he points out.

“Customers are primarily trying to get the most out of their equipment and trying to make sure they have less waste,” says Alan Shuhaibar, president of BellatRx (Point-Claire, QC, Canada). Industry consolidation and pressures brought on by blockbuster drug recall scandals and patent expiration have led shareholders to “pretty much put a hold on capital expenditures.” Stock prices have dropped, and many companies are restructuring. As a result, future spending is on hold, he says.

Manufacturers trying to root out waste will find weak spots in several aspects of a packaging line. Uwe Kellermann, vice president of pharma applications for Optima Machinery Corp. (Green Bay, WI), says one of the most wasteful functions is manual batch recording, which is very time-consuming. He also singles out line clearance, recounting, and product leftovers. Optima offers automated batch recording as a solution. “It’s a paperless process directly linked to a mainframe computer,” he says, with nondestructible online checkweighing for syringes and product yield.

“Film scrap is always a major factor in a packaging line, along with rejected packages off the end of the line because of things such as bad printing, holes in the film, or missing products detected,” says Multivac’s Hirsh. Automated product loading and package inspection can rec-tify the problems and improve OEE, Hirsh insists. “They are also able to deliver a more-consistent product to their customer. This results in lowering their overall package cost and maintaining quality.”

Langosch of ESS Technologies points the finger at cartoner and horizontal form-fill-seal machine misfeeds, incomplete loading, as well as empty-container feeding and orientation as waste producers.

Cartons or pouches containing multiple items require the efficient collation and feeding of vials, pouches, blisters, leaflets, syringes, and similar products, he points out. Automated feeding systems, which include robotic feeders, with vision systems and related verification capabilities can enhance the accuracy of multiple-item feeds.

“Robotic systems place containers in pucks and sort and load containers from an unoriented position,” Langosch says. “Where typical orientation systems are unable to handle the containers, robotics offers a faster and more-efficient process that keeps a line running and eliminates disposing of misfed containers.”

Difficult automation challenges abound. One trouble spot is “definitely powder,” Corsten asserts. Automating lines to accommodate microscopic powder in very low quantities is “a very sophisticated task,” he says. For liquids, Uhlmann’s equipment usually sees those products “after the vial or syringes have been filled, then we handle it.” He says it’s a “quite delicate” and sophisticated process fitting the liquid product into a package.”

BellatRx, which specializes in waste reduction technology, recently launched an automated recovery system for finished bottles. Shuhaibar claims the equipment has done well with customers “once you demonstrate the fact that an automated system can get the result you’re looking for in terms of return on investment (ROI).”

Given the cost pressures in the industry, ROI is never far from executives’ thoughts. The prices of the automation solutions touted by these executives vary with the degree of automation. Robotic loaders from ESS Technologies “start from as little as $50,000,” Langosch says. The new recovery system from BellatRx ranges from $25,000 to $90,000, according to Shuhaibar. Bennewitz of Packaging Systems Automation says his gear starts at a minimum of $10,000 “and then on up to the sky’s the limit. If somebody wants cartoning and case packing and palletizing of a whole line, you can spend millions of dollars.”

Corsten insists that automation costs vary too much to generalize. Some companies “just look at the numbers. If they can prove it pays back its cost over a certain period, then they go for it. The ROI should make sense, though—no longer than two or three years.”

And if the systems work as well as claimed, everyone may be able to breathe easier and take a moment to relax and laugh at that rerun of I Love Lucy.

John Conroy is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

 

 
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