Pfizer Adopts Vision System On High Speed Bottle Filling Lines
Optel system replaces manual inspection for improved quality.
Pfizer is introducing camera-based vision inspection on five high-speed bottle filling lines at its Pearl River, NY, facility. The plant is implementing the Slat Filler Inspector from Optel Vision (Quebec City, Canada) for 100% automated inspection of solid dose multivitamin products.
“We saw that with this system successfully in place, we could achieve even higher quality standards. The object is to drive product quality improvements and customer satisfaction,” says John Moynihan, packaging engineer, Pfizer.
“Optel brought a lot of experience in automated blister inspection to the design of the slat-filling solution. There are a lot of systems on the market for camera-based blister inspection, but very few for inspecting slat fillers. We worked closely with them in developing the solution for our requirements,” Moynihan adds.
The system replaces manual inspection on five filling lines at the facility.
“When you are running many different products on a packaging line, an automated, state-of-the-art process control helps ensure high levels of quality. [With manual inspection] you are depending on the human factor to always pick up product defects. The automated solution enhances our process quality,” says Roger Fuchs, principle project engineer.
The plant is qualifying the vision system on five Merrill (IMA) slat fillers. All the machines are being qualified for the full range of bottle sizes and tablets packaged at the facility, which include the Centrum vitamin product line.
Three packaging lines are currently using the system. A fourth line is currently being validated and the fifth line is expected to be validated and up and running by the end of November, Moynihan says.
The first system required almost a week for installation, then a week of recipe development and testing, followed by a week of installation operation qualification (IOQ). “After the recipes for the first two lines were developed, they could be moved from line to line, so we are now doing the install, recipe development, and OQ in two weeks,” Fuchs says.
The Slat Filler Inspector inspects for numerous tablet defects including broken and missing tablets, and monitors the number of doses filled into the bottles. The PC-based system processes images captured by cameras arrayed along the plant’s 990-mm-long slat fillers. Ten cameras are each assigned a discrete number of slat cavities and bottles in providing a complete view of the slat loading and bottle-filling operation.
“The system has to verify that all cavities are filled. It basically counts every cavity by taking a picture of it. If you have an empty cavity, it will identify that as a short count and the bottle will be rejected,” Moynihan says.
The system can also identify incorrect tablet color or shape, and the system automatically shuts down, and shows the operator the fault’s location, allowing for manual removal. The bottle in question is rejected.
“Tablets with slight variations in color previously undetected by manual inspection are now indentified, The system differentiates the lightness, picks it up as a fault, and rejects the bottle.”
Optel developed algorithms for identifying partial tabs hidden in the cavity by full tabs or sitting atop full tabs, sticking out of the cavity but still trapped. For this measurement, the depth of the tablet in the cavity is assessed using color and lightness analyses. “An operator would never pick that up. We weren’t expecting [to have that function],” Moynihan says.
The system is flexibly reset for supporting new bottle sizes and counts as well as new solid dose products. A recipe change for a different bottle and count is accomplished in under five minutes. “If the product changes, the process becomes more detailed. We have to challenge it against our other products, and set new inspection parameters,” Moynihan says.
Recent advances in camera, lighting, and image processing technology have made vision systems cost effective for bottle filling applications, yielding a better ROI, says Louis Roy, president, Optel Vision.
“We have transferred the knowledge and tools we apply in blister inspection to the slat filling solution,” Roy says.
The price/performance of the Slat Filler Inspector’s PC is enhanced with an Intel Quad core processor. Ultra bright white LED lighting supports the analyses of contrast and shadow.
The integration of the vision system highlighted a need for improved slat filling. Some of the slat cavities were too large to keep the tabs stable for capturing good pictures. Pfizer ac-quired new slats from IPS (Denville, NJ), Fuchs says.
“The slat filling efficiency is critical in order to guarantee you are not putting out any short counts. Prior to putting the systems in we looked at our slat filling and had new slats built for a lot of our products. We were very careful selecting the vendor and in testing them prior to putting them into service,” Fuchs says.
“In our operations qualification, we build the case that the product/slat combination is a critical component of the inspection,” he adds.
The engineers are evaluating the system’s impact on overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). “We know our efficiencies have gone up considerably. When you have operators doing manual inspection, you have a lot of minor stops. These have been eliminated as the system keeps running, rejecting out-of-specification bottles,” Moynihan says.
“Whenever you put a new process in place, it affects other processes. We have identified some issues with broken tablets that we are trying to correct in the manufacturing process,” he says.
Batch sizes of upwards of 3 million tabs might have hundreds of broken tabs. “That is a small number of broken tabs, but you have to reprocess bottles rejected for one broken tablet. This creates a rework loop. We are evaluating the OEE implications in this area,” Moynihan says.
The plant is seeing positive results, the engineers say. In OQ testing, finished bottles were checked for defects. “In all the samples we ran through validation and testing we have yet to find a broken piece of tablet in any bottle. The system is exceeding our expectation thus far (in detection of broken tabs),” Moynihan says.
The team is evaluating areas for cost savings beyond the phase out of inspection personnel. Initial soft savings derive from increased line speeds and output, Moynihan says.
“This is a new process, and we have the new process step of rework, but we hope to identify additional areas for savings this year,” Moynihan says. “Another new benefit is that we are deriving new value from existing equipment by marrying new technology with proven technology.”
Are other Pfizer bottle filling facilities interested in automated inspection?
“We’ve had visits from other Pfizer sites that are evaluating it on a site-by site basis,” Moynihan says.