Increasing Pharmaceutical Packaging Line Flexibility with Robots

Drug companies whose product lines are constantly expanding are finding that robots increase the flexibility of their packaging line.

by Daphne Allen, Editor

If your company has recently been acquired by or has purchased another company, chances are that your product lines have expanded. Your packaging design department has been under pressure to create a new line of packaging styles and labeling, but what about your production lines?

Fanuc Robotics's M-410i HS/HW robotic system palletizes a variety of box styles and sizes. Photo Courtesy of Fanuc Robotics.

To accommodate the additional packaging styles and sizes and the different labels for each variation, packaging line operators need to streamline their changeover process, which isn't easy if each variation requires new tooling. And, if the line uses dedicated automation hardware, performing changeovers may be next to impossible.

Packaging line integrators, however, have determined how to make pharmaceutical packaging lines flexible enough to handle a wide variety of packaging styles and sizes—by using robotics. Integrators have successfully placed robots at a number of places along the packaging line. In some cases, robots have enabled companies to run multiple package variations on one line with little disruption.

"The robot is well suited for small-volume, highly flexible product lines," says Walter Weisel, president and CEO of Robotic Workspace Technologies Inc. (RWT; Fort Myers Beach, FL), a provider of open-architecture robot control systems. "The rapid changeover demands of the pharmaceutical industry demand the flexibility of a robot."

A custom robotic system packs various sizes of vials into shipping trays. Photo Courtesy of DCS Engineering.

Robots are also flexible because they can be used for different tasks. "In the pharmaceutical industry, product lives are shorter and product line extensions are broader, so there is pressure on capital equipment to keep up," explains Joe Campbell, vice president of marketing for Adept Technology Inc. (San Jose). Unlike most dedicated automation equipment, robots can be reconfigured to work on different lines.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of using a robot is the fact that engineers do not have to build a new packaging line for each new product variation. "Companies can't always justify buying new machines nor the time inventing a new line for each new product," says Jeff Reiche of R. A. Jones & Company, Inc. (Cincinnati).

Finally, today's robots are designed to communicate easily with almost any piece of equipment on the packaging line. Whether they are controlled by a personal computer (PC) or by an individual robotic controller, the robots can connect to a network for plantwide control and monitoring.


Due to the healthcare industry's 1990s flurry of mergers and acquisitions, many pharmaceutical companies are finding themselves packaging wider lines of products than ever before. "Years ago, a typical pharmaceutical packaging line was required to run only one or two packages, but now some lines are required to run as many as 30 to 40 different packages," says Jim Cooper, sales manager for DCS Engineering and Automation (Bradenton, FL), an integrator of packaging lines.

William DeCamp, the director of marketing at Motoman (West Carrollton, OH), agrees. "Robots are able to handle the high throughput requirements of the pharmaceutical industry with increasing axis speeds and to handle multiple products simultaneously," he says. "A robot can often handle several products at a time, depending on the payload of the robot and the weight of the product and tooling. These robots can be very cost-effective solutions in comparison to dedicated equipment designed to perform a certain task."

According to a study conducted by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI; Arlington, VA), 59% of the lines in the study are running more than five products. Forty-nine percent change over from one product to another at least once per shift.

With such a variety of packaging sizes to handle, line operators are discovering that their equipment cannot quickly and easily handle the changes. PMMI's data indicate that 75% of all changeovers take more than 30 minutes, and 52% take up to eight hours.

"Dedicated automation systems cannot change over easily and cost effectively," Cooper says. For example, consider a dedicated, high-speed vial labeling and packaging system that is designed to handle a single size of vial. "Adding additional vial sizes to such systems could have a significant impact on either equipment design or changeover or may not be feasible."

Use of a robotic pick-and-place transfer system, however, can accommodate size changes more easily. "Changeover

can be as simple as changing a programming code or downloading information from a central computer," Cooper explains. "At the very most, it involves changing an end effector." In the case of the robotic vial transfer system, the only tooling change required is the changing of the vial-gripping mechanism at the end of the robotic arm.

According to Karen Rashid, pharmaceutical business development manager for Fanuc Robotics North America Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI), "Most product changeovers take only one to two minutes."

Such a robotic changeover can even be performed automatically by the robot. Jeff Engelberger, engineering manager for the Robert E. Morris Co.'s automation division (Farmington, CT), a robotic integrator, recently designed a robotic system that palletizes packaged pharmaceutical products in varying sizes, shapes, and weights. The robot's end effector is equipped with 64 individually controlled suction cups intended to lift and carry packages. Packages from several different lines travel to one of two robots through a network of conveyors. Each robot senses the presence of the packages and reads their bar codes to determine their weight, size, and pallet destination. Equipped with such information, the robot determines how many suction cups it needs to activate in order to lift the packages.

The robot can also handle case changes, explains Engelberger. When the robot senses a case with an open-top configuration, it can automatically switch from its use of suction cups to that of a mechanical gripper.

Adapting Robots for Use in Pharmaceutical Cleanrooms

by Karen Rashid, pharmaceutical business development manager, Fanuc Robotics North America Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI).

Can robots be used in a Class 100 pharmaceutical cleanroom? With a few key component modifications, robots can comply with the requirements for a Class 100 environment by generating 100 particles or less measuring 0.5 µm per cubic foot of air, per Federal Standard 209E. For even more stringent requirements, subclass 100 robots are available. The following components are used:


  • Drivetrain components that are cleanroom grade.


  • Special gaskets on the mating surfaces of castings.


  • Cleanroom-grade paint.


  • Nonload-bearing fasteners replaced with stainless steel fasteners.


  • Load-bearing fasteners that are coated or sealed.


  • Nickel- or chrome-plated robot wrist flange.


  • End-of-arm tooling made of noncorroding materials.


  • Robot controllers typically placed outside of the cleanroom in order to eliminate emissions from cooling fan.

Cleanroom robots reduce costs by automating the inspection, picking and placing, or loading and unloading of process tools. Benefits of robot use in the cleanroom include:


  • Robots reduce scrap by minimizing mishandled or dropped parts.


  • Robots minimize scrap caused by contamination.


  • Robots reduce the use of cleanroom consumables such as bunny suits.


  • Robots reduce the amount of costly cleanroom space by eliminating aisles and access ways typically required for human cleanroom workers. Robots can also be enclosed in minienvironments. This permits relaxed cleanliness throughout the remainder of the plant.


  • Training costs and cleanroom protocol enforcement are minimized.



Robots are also better than hard automation at flexible feeding, a task that involves handling multiple types of products or packages whose orientation always varies. Traditionally, packaging lines have used high-speed, automated bowl feeders that vibrate parts and feed them to fillers, labelers, or product-transfer mechanisms. Bowl feeders, however, can't always handle a variety of products at once, and their vibration can damage fragile parts.

"If you can feed parts from a rotary or vibratory bowl or a similar bulk-feed mechanism and have a common way of orienting them, a hard-tooled pick-and-place system is the most cost-effective solution," explains Don Krueger, market manager of Remmele Engineering Inc.'s automation division (St. Paul, MN). "But for fragile parts that can't be vibrated, you can equip a robot with a camera and vision system so it can recognize randomly presented parts and their orientation and place those parts in the right configuration."

"Bowl feeders are designed for one part geometry," adds Gary Parish, president of the packaging division of GSMA-Parish (Palm Bay, FL). "Robots, however, are capable of flexible feeding." For instance, Parish has introduced RoboPharm, a six-axis robot for transferring pharmaceutical products to a computer vision system and a bar code scanner. RoboPharm verifies that the labeled product has the correct label and that the date or lot code matches the code in memory and is readable.

A number of robot manufacturers and integrators offer robots for flexible feeding. The robots are equipped with machine vision systems that enable them to recognize different products and their configurations. Based on the image that the machine vision–guided robot sees, the robot can find a part, then properly orient the part to the next station.

Brian Cohen, CEO of Menziken Automation Inc. (Charlotte, NC), which markets the AFlex PF flexible feeding system, says that flexible feeding systems are most appropriate for multiple-part packages. "The systems lend themselves to uses that require fast changeover from one part to the next." An example of such a package is a date pack. "There's a fine line between packaging and assembly. Often, companies whose packages are expensive and complex take an assembly approach," he says.

ABB Automation (New Berlin, WI) also markets the FlexPicker, an inverted robot that can move along three to four axes and can sort and collate numerous products moving on conveyors. The robot can pick up a single product and place it up to two feet away and return to its original location in less than half a second, explains Ron Howell, ABB's director of sales development. Packaging uses include tray loading of pharmaceuticals weighing up to two pounds.

The vision systems that guide the robot during flexible feeding literally "become the eyes of the robot," explains Michael Valverde, director of communications for DVT Corp. (Norcross, GA). "The robot can make decisions based on what the machine vision system tells it." DVT's SmartImage Sensor can be mounted directly on the robot. "The sensor gives the robots x, y, and z coordinates, and the robot adjusts to them," Valverde explains.

Robot Controls Camera in Vision System

A vision system provides a valuable tool for determining the accuracy of text and graphics in pharmaceutical and medical packaging. One drawback is that the process can be labor-intensive, requiring an operator to move either the camera or the material through each area of comparison. To make the process easier, GSMA-Parish (Palm Bay, FL) developed the RoboSpect and PageSpect systems. These vision systems combine robotic with vision inspection technology to reduce inspection time by 90%.

Both systems were designed to control the entire inspection process. They have a fully programmable x-y robotic inspection stage, single or multiple cameras with different resolutions, controlled lighting within an enclosed workstation, locked-in camera parameters, a Windows 95 operating system, and the ability to store masters in memory. PageSpect handles sheets up to 12 x 18 in. in size, while RoboSpect inspects sheets up to 40 x 60 in.

The chief benefit offered by adding a robot to the vision system is speed. PageSpect can inspect an 8½ x 11–in. insert in less than two minutes, according to Gary Parish, president of GSMA-Parish. The same inspection performed by one operator and checked by a second operator could take from 30 minutes to an hour.

Zeneca (Newark, DE), a worldwide pharmaceutical manufacturer, has installed the system at its clinical trial label production facility in order to inspect the accuracy of its clinical trial labeling. "The system is able to compare a known good label to a sample label and display or identify the differences for the inspectors," explains Parish.—Annie Gorton



Despite their flexibility, robots may not be the best option, especially if a company requires high throughput more than high flexibility. "Depending upon the application, there is sometimes a trade-off between high speed and high flexibility," Cooper says.

Robots can be made to operate faster, however. Some manufacturers are designing robots whose speed can match that of a packaging line. Everette Phillips, general manager of Seiko Factory Automation and Robotics (Torrance, CA), says that his firm has developed a tabletop SCARA (selective compliance assembly robot arm) robot that "can interact with lines with cycle times of 1–2 seconds." For some uses, companies can increase robot speed by installing two robots that perform the same function side by side on one line.

One pharmaceutical manufacturer who purchased two palletizing robots says that speed really isn't an issue when it comes to palletizing "because it is at the end of the packaging line." Instead, the firm purchased the robots to save labor and improve worker safety.

However, if robots are replacing manual labor on a line, packaging line speed does increase. Howell explains that last year ABB supplied one of its robots for use with a carton-loading machine from R. A. Jones. The robot picks up vials from a stationary area and places them into cartons moving along at a constant speed on a conveyor. Howell says the key impetus for robot use was speed. "There are no good pieces of traditional automation equipment, other than manual labor," he says. The robot is able to keep up with the cartoner's speed, which is a rate of 300 vials per minute.

American-Newlong (Indianapolis) recently introduced the Fuji Ace, a palletizing robot that can handle different sizes and weights of bags and boxes at speeds of up to 1600 cycles per hour.

Questions to Ask Before Installing a Robot

1. How is the product oriented on the robot infeed device?

2. What external sensors enable the robot to perform?

3. What external signals must the robot receive, interpret, and act upon?

4. What external signals must the robot send to other portions of the plant and to computers?

5. What are the line speeds, package sizes, weights, and stacking or placing patterns?

6. What safety barriers will be installed?

7. How many lines are feeding the robot?

8. What robot tooling is required?

9. Does the robot have the capacity for the application?

Source: Robert Prendergast, robotics national sales manager, Schneider Packaging Equipment Company, Inc. (Brewerton, NY)



The flexibility of robots is usually measured by their ability to handle multiple product changes over time, but they can also handle changes in product life cycles, explains Seiko's Phillips. "Product life cycles are getting shorter, so many companies are struggling to have large capital expenditures, such as automated lines, last across more than one product life. This means that the line should be quickly restructured and adapted to a new product."

This tabletop-sized robot can move items that weigh up to 11 lb. Photo Courtesy of GSMA-Parish.

Robots can adapt quickly to such a changing atmosphere. "If a product line is discontinued, the robot can be redeployed elsewhere in the plant. That's what makes the robot such a good capital investment," explains Cooper.

Adept, for instance, has developed process planning and design software that enables packaging engineers to plan robot redeployment before actually moving the hardware. Production Pilot creates a virtual factory, allowing engineers to evaluate changes in the role of a robot before they occur.


Most robots have onboard controllers that communicate with other machines' programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or with personal computers (PCs) networked to the line. For instance, Adept's AdeptWindows robot controller is an industrial VME bus controller that connects to PCs for networking and for graphical user interfaces.

Howell says that most robots have their own proprietary controllers for operating their own servomotors, and the robotic controllers talk to other PLCs by hard wire, Ethernet, or proprietary communication protocols. He adds that there are a wide variety of human-machine interfaces (HMIs) available for robots, complete with touch screens and computer-based color graphics. "The customer's preferences dictate the need for an HMI," he says.

Seiko's Phillips, however, says: "The general trend has been toward PC-based controllers. Seiko, for example, has embraced PC-based controllers and the Microsoft Windows NT environment in a very strong way. Some competitors are simply adding some DLL portal to a limited library, but Seiko has Active X controls and will allow complete robot and vision programs to be written in standard languages like Microsoft Visual Basic, Visual C++, J++, and Imprise/Borland's Delphi language."

The main reason that companies like Seiko have embraced PC-based controls and Windows NT is to reduce training costs, Phillips explains. "Engineers are scarce, and engineers with knowledge of difficult, proprietary robot languages are even more scarce. However, an engineer with knowledge of Microsoft products like Windows NT and Visual Basic can learn PC-based robot language in a few days, even without prior knowledge of robots and machine vision."

RobotScript from RWT is based on Microsoft Visual Basic, with extensions for robotic control. Says RWT's Weisel: "Windows-based software is predominantly used on the factory floor. Using Microsoft Windows NT for robotic control allows for great flexibility in software design and takes advantage of thousands of off-the-shelf programs. It is also an operating system that many people are familiar with, so there is a short learning curve."

Adept's Campbell, however, says: "PCs alone are not reliable enough in high-performance, safety-critical motion applications like robots." Adept's approach is to isolate the PC and safety-critical robot control. "We leverage the PC for its strengths—networking, human-machine interface, and third-party hardware and software—and directly connect it to our industrial VME bus controller."

Regardless of the type of robot controller a firm chooses, line engineers must make sure that the robot can communicate effortlessly with other machines on the line. Packaging integrators may need to update PLCs on older equipment so that it can receive and send signals to its new robotic neighbor. Howard Leary, vice president of applied engineering of Luciano Packaging Technologies Inc. (Somerville, NJ), says that he has had to update existing lines whose PLCs were obsolete. "We chose not to work with the machines' existing PLCs, so we added our own control system."


According to Fanuc Robotics's Rashid, "Paybacks for the purchase of robotic equipment are especially quick in the pharmaceutical industry, given the fairly high hourly labor rates paid to employees, number of production shifts, and the low cost of capital. Paybacks range from one to two years for many operations, depending on geographical location."

For instance, Robert Prendergast, robotics national sales manager of Schneider Packaging Equipment Company, Inc. (Brewerton, NY), says that a typical robot installation, complete with accessories, safety barriers, conveyors, and labor, could cost around $200,000. If that robot were to replace four manual workers each earning approximately $30,000 per year, the robot would be paid for through salary savings alone in a little more than a year and a half.


Before you decide to add robots to your packaging line, involve everyone from the packaging engineer to the computer systems expert to the production line worker. They can answer questions about the process requirements of the packaging line. Rashid says that the robot manufacturer and integrator will need to know the "process requirements, including line speeds, rates, environments, and packaging sizes and weights."

Once the decision has been made and the process has been defined, companies should find an integrator that is willing to build a system at his own facility to demonstrate the robot's capabilities. Most do, and at that point users can qualify the equipment before making room on their own production floor.

Another issue that should be considered before installation is validation. "People disagree about validation. If the robot just picks and places, it has nothing to do with the efficacy of the product," explains Leary. He says that FDA tends not to enforce the validation of handling devices. However, if a firm typically validates every piece of equipment on a line instead of classifying equipment either as critical or noncritical and only validating critical pieces, the firm should validate its robots.

Parish, however, believes that FDA "cares about every process that affects the product. If the robot picks up the wrong tablet, a major recall can occur."

More and more robot manufacturers are designing robots specifically for the pharmaceutical industry, and several packaging line integrators offer drug firms robotic installation services. If you are considering adding a robot to your packaging line, you will find plenty of resources. A good place to start is the Robotics Industries Association (Ann Arbor, MI), which holds workshops, conferences, and in-house training seminars. The association is also currently revising a robot safety standard.

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