Integrating a Packaging Line

Integration can make the packaging process simpler or—if it is not done right—much more complicated.


By Erik Swain, Senior Editor

As the pharmaceutical packaging field grows and gets more competitive, packagers feel pressure to become more efficient. Many are finding they need an automated packaging line. And for such a process to work, they need integration. That is, all the machines and conveyors on the line have to run together and communicate with each other, often through a computer software system. If the line is integrated properly, better output and less downtime per shift will result.

An operator views man-machine-interface screens in the central control room of a filling line. Photo courtesy of Lockwood Greene.

But not all integration works the same way, and not all companies need the same kind of integration. In fact, many packaging engineers recommend that each line be custom designed, because almost no packagers have identical requirements. And if just one part of the line is not working right, the production of the entire line suffers.


For best results, each packager must convey to the integrator—whether a consultant, a vendor, or an in-house engineer—exactly what it needs. Some will value speed, others flexibility. Some will want full automation, others semiautomation. Some will want an entirely new system, while others may not have the budget and will want to craft the best line out of existing machines.

"On the design side of an integration project, there are usually three steps," says Mark Wilson, packaging engineer at Lockwood Greene (Spartanburg, SC), a consulting, design, and construction firm. "One, determine how many horizontal points of control there are. This means the number of points on the line that have to be controlled, from sensors' input/output signals to [programmable logic controller] communication among machines.

"Two, figure out how many vertical controls there are. This means the methods by which information from the horizontal points is collected and documented. Are production data collected for the plant? Are product recipes downloaded to the equipment?

"Finally, decide who is the main system integrator. [The integrator must have] the power to have third-party vendors adhere to the controls design and format of control documents. The integrator can be the end-user or a consultant, but he or she has to have the financial clout through the equipment's [purchase order] to make the vendors comply with the integration design."

Another factor, says Bradford Smith, vice president of Pine Brook, NJ—based Modular Packaging Systems Inc. is predicting the customer's future needs, not just its present ones.

"We do find that the customer—on their own or though someone else—gets information on equipment that for the moment suits them fine," he says. "But in a year, if they expand, [that equipment] limits their capacity and they may not be able to use it for future business. You have to allow some possibility for expansion and growth."

And, says Don Krueger, market manager for Remmele Engineering Inc., Automation Div. (St. Paul, MN), the integrator, end-user, and suppliers need to be familiar with each other. "If you do not know the people whose equipment you integrate very well, it will not go as smoothly," he says. "Whoever participates in an integration should participate heavily in the choosing of the subsuppliers. And if someone is searching for an integrator, they need to make sure the integrator has managed large systems from multiple vendors before, and knows how to go through validation and [to meet] FDA requirements."

Other considerations include utility outlets, which may have to be upgraded to handle integrated lines, and floor space, which is often tight.


It is becoming more and more common for end-users to give others responsibility for integration. Because many pharmaceutical companies downsized their engineering staffs in the early 1990s, they may not have enough people to handle such a task.

"The customer wants to give more responsibility to the vendor, to have [the vendor] act like a project engineer or manager," says Alan Purrone, sales manager for IMA North America Inc. (Fairfield, CT). "For the pharmaceutical company, the vendor will do the component design, or give suggestions for it. They must also work more closely with the customer-chosen component suppliers."

A tablet-filling line from Hoppmann Corp. (Chantilly, VA).

Consulting engineers and vendorssay they have noticed several trends in integration in recent years. One is that contract packagers, more so than pharmaceutical companies, demand a lot of flexibility built into their lines.

"Contract packagers always ask for extreme versatility in their lines because they don't know what they will get in business from one month to the next," says Dennis K. Winberry, regional sales manager, NJM/CLI Packaging Systems International (Montreal and Lebanon, NH). "An established pharmaceutical company may know they will only have four to six sizes of bottles for the foreseeable life of the line."


Not surprisingly, the level of integration has become more sophisticated as advances in technology are made. The newer a system is, the more likely it is to be run more by electronics than by mechanics.

"Over the last few years, there have been significant advances in integrated control systems," says Manfred Becker, business manager for Klöckner Medipak (Clearwater, FL). "You can make them talk to each other and get data acquisition reports from the complete line."

"In the earlier days, it was an advantage if you replaced mechanics with electronic solutions like motion control, and replaced mechanical gearboxes with electronic gear ratios," says Martin Brux, senior application engineer and business development for Siemens In-dustrial Product Division & Machine Control Systems (Alpharetta, GA). "Now customers want further steps with motion control solutions, so they can keep tracking their products and have more flexibility."

In order to integrate a system this advanced, engineers say, it is easiest to have all the machines come from the same supplier. "That helps alleviate finger-pointing," says Purrone of IMA. However, some companies, such as Romaco Inc. (Morris Plains, NJ), build components that can interface easily with one another or be integrated with other suppliers' equipment.

There are even systems that can connect a line electronically with a customer's main computer network. For example, Markem Corp. (Keene, NH) recently introduced its CimControl software, which runs in Microsoft Windows. It enables a company to manage all phases of its coding and labeling from one computer. "You can have dynamic data exchange links that can link the label management software to other applications, primarily databases," says Jim Forrest, product manager at Markem.

Systech (Cranbury, NJ) has technology that can integrate a machine vision system into a total line-management strategy. "A customer's needs are [being able] to improve the quality of the product and to make the product [run] faster," says Bob DeJean, founder and chief executive officer of Systech. "Machine vision helps, but it alone does not solve the problem."

But many suppliers recognize that there will be customers who need to use their machines and subsystems with those of another company. So they try to program them to be compatible with as many other systems as possible.

Another concern is getting the conveyors to interface properly with each machine. Often this is an issue that is not addressed until the last minute, and if something is not right, there could be significant delays. Garvey Corp. (Blue Anchor, NJ) is trying to change that.

"Getting the containers in and out of machines can get tricky sometimes, especially when you are dealing with small pharmaceutical vials or lightweight plastic containers," says Mark Garvey, president. "The machinery manufacturer will focus on performance issues as they relate to the primary function of the machine. It's not until the machine is integrated with the rest of the line that the issues of transfer to and from the machine are discovered. We try to avoid this problem by actually sending the appropriate infeed and discharge conveyors to the machinery builders early in the project."

Lockwood Greene designs integrated packaging lines for pharmaceutical firms.

Some say the hardest part of the job is validation and documentation, which are of especially great concern to the ethical pharmaceutical houses. On a system with components all from the same company, "the toughest challenges are typically in the control sector," says Becker of Klöckner Medipak. "They have mainly to do with documentation, verification, and FDA requirements."


The innovation in control systems is expected to continue, at least incrementally. "In the future, because of electronics, there will be more-sophisticated controls," says John Henry, principal at John Henry Associates (Fajardo, PR), a consulting firm. "You will see more and more flexibility, in which one machine can run everything. Machines will not be as dedicated as they needed to be in the past."

But, he acknowledges, these innovations cost money. "It used to be that these pharmaceutical companies had money to burn. Now, there are cost pressures. [A new system] is not cheap, even if there is good payback."

For that and other reasons, says Smith of Modular Packaging Systems, some companies are no longer demanding machines with all the latest features and technology. They have decided they don't need such complexities.

Integration makes the packaging pro-cess simpler, but if not done right, it can make it infinitely more complicated. Considering every possible issue, re-quirement, and need beforehand will help prevent problems later.

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