Ten Years of Filling

PMP News takes a look at the latest developments in filling equipmentover the last decade. 

Kassandra Kania

Filling equipment from Bosch Packaging Technology can be integrated into barrier isolators for increased sterility. 

Advances in automation, the need for increased speed and accuracy, and the desire to cut costs are just a few of the factors driving developments in packaging machinery. Filling equipment is no exception. Over the past 10 years, suppliers have responded to customers’ needs by designing fillers that offer more flexibility, easy accessibility, and quick changeover. Designs are more compact and streamlined than they were 10 years ago, which—in addition to being aesthetically pleasing—facilitates operation, maintenance, and cleaning. In this article, industry experts take a look at some of the most significant changes that have taken place in filling equipment during the past 10-plus years in response to the development of new products and increased production volumes.

The Need for Speed

Customers today are demanding fillers that operate more quickly than their predecessors, and suppliers are meeting these demands. “In the 1960s, we had machines that operated at rates of 36,000 to 40,000 capsules per hour,” says Claudio Radossi, director of sales for MG America (Fairfield, NJ). “Today, we are reaching rates of 200,000 capsules per hour. The evolution of machine design allows us to increase the amount of dosing elements on the machine and operate the machine at a faster rate of speed.” 

A move toward integrating machinery has also increased production speeds. Capmatic’s new filler, the Conquest, increases speed by connecting an in-line filler with a rotary capper. “Now we can fill and cap with one machine,” says Ali Bassani, vice president of Capmatic (Montreal). “We increase the speed with our walking-beam system, which moves the container while it’s being filled so we don’t lose time.”

Developments in automation and the use of servomotors over the past decade have increased machinery speed. Servo systems also increase accuracy, says Jonas Ewing, quality manager for Norden Pac Machinery AB (Kalmar, Sweden), but “the most important change is the format handling time. Changeover time is decreasing rapidly,” he says. “Changeing from one product to another product is done much quicker than it was 10 years ago.” 

“With quick changeovers and toolless changeovers, you can run more batches in an eight-hour shift,” says Bruce Teeling, product manager for Key International (Englishtown, NJ). “Whereas it used to take two days to change a machine from one size to the next, these new methods and devices allow you to change the machine over in as little as 15 minutes.” In addition, incorporating scales and digital indicators on the machine provides reference points for assisting in the format and container changeovers, says Teeling. 

Time to Automate

Then and now: Machine integration and advances in automation allow Capmatic’s Eklips (top) to operate more quickly and efficiently than its predecessor, the first-generation monoblock filler from 1964 (bottom).

In the last 10 years, automation has become more widely used as costs have decreased. This has increased machine speed and reduced labor requirements. “More people are adopting it and are able to justify the investment,” says Teeling. “Whereas you used to have operators place a bottle on a conveyor, now you have pick-and-place systems and other automation devices to aid in container handling.” 

According to Ewing, Norden’s first commercial robotic systems were sold in 1997. The Pick & Place unit takes the tubes directly from the filler and places them into the cartoner pockets. “When you’re operating at high speeds, you have to have more sophisticated transfer systems between machines,” says Ewing. 

Computer-controlled algorithms have made many systems, such as time-pressure filling systems, more accurate and sophisticated as well over the last 10 years, says John Kirk, vice president of sales for Bosch Packaging Technology (Minneapolis). “Automation is a constantly improving area,” he notes. “If you look back 10 years, one of the biggest differences is the sophistication of the control screens and the operator interfaces—the HMI [human machine interface] panels. These present far more sophisticated information to the operators in an easy-to-use format.” Ewing agrees that the interface between operator and machine has made significant strides over the last 10 years. HMIs on first- and second-generation machines included text screens or simple graphics, and many buttons. Third-generation machines offer color touch screens, and all the machine adjustments can be made via this interface. 

Keeping it Clean

Over the years, changes in machine design and material have made fillers easier to maintain and clean. National Instrument Co.’s (Baltimore) original benchtop fillers and cabinets were manufactured with a painted finish, says Jack Grosskopf, inside sales manager. “Due to more-stringent EPA standards, both fillers and cabinets are now stainless steel. The stainless-steel finish is more corrosion resistant and minimizes particulate generation.”

Clean-in-place (CIP) and steam-in-place (SIP) systems, although costly, are beneficial in the long run over the life of the machine, says Ewing. “The commercial breakthrough for these systems occurred in the mid-1990s,” he says. “Instead of dismounting a pump and taking it to a cleaning station to clean it manually, you can clean it in the machine without making any changes.” This not only helps with the changeover, but also gives more- repeatable results. 

Changes in design, such as round shafts, also facilitate cleaning, says Capmatic’s Bassani. In addition, Capmatic numbers all of its electrical and pneumatic hoses for easy troubleshooting. 

What’s New

The use of prefilled syringes is on the rise. This has led to an evolution in syringe filling, explains Uwe Kellerman, vice president of pharmaceutical applications for Optima Machinery Corp. (Green Bay, WI). “Ten years ago, this was almost nonexistent,” he says. “Today, it has become a booming market.”
 
Optima has introduced an in-process control that allows operators to check the fill volumes in a nondestructive way. “Some drugs are very expensive, and you don’t want to waste the product,” Kellerman explains. “We weigh the syringe before filling and after filling, before the plunger is placed; therefore, the product is not being destroyed.” An area that is still new and evolving is intraject cartridges for needleless injections, which are filled by a combination of pulling vacuum and penetration through a valve into the cartridge, Kellerman explains. 

Bosch’s Kirk also notices a trend toward increased sterility protection during the filling process. “The traditional way of doing liquid filling for injectible drugs or aseptic processing is in a cleanroom atmosphere, with the operators in the cleanroom being the single biggest potential for contamination,” he says. “The industry is moving toward better isolating the filling process from that potential contamination.” Such filling is taking place in restricted-access barrier systems and barrier isolators. “In the last 10 years, the concept of barrier isolation has gone from theory to practice,” says Kirk. “That is one of the biggest changes in liquid filling over the past 10 years.”

In turn, this has led to some significant design changes in filling machines to accommodate the limitations of barrier isolators, says Kirk. Bosch has introduced filling equipment that can be completely integrated into a barrier isolator. Accessibility is important, says Kellerman, especially in an isolated version; therefore, a small footprint is necessary.

Control panels, like this one on Norden’s filling equipment, have made great strides in the last decade with the use of color touch screens and easy-to-follow instructions. 

Another process that is increasing in popularity is multicolor filling for toothpaste products, says Ewing. Norden developed three-color, high-speed filling in 1986. The old filling technique used suck-back for cutoff. This was replaced with a blow-off nozzle and deep stripe coex shape. Each color is pumped with an individual pump for maximal control. This new technique increased production speed by more than 50%—up to 150 tubes per minute in twin-head machines. 
Divided chambers inside the tube are also being used to keep two ingredients separate until the point of use, when they are mixed together. According to Ewing, this is another fairly new application that is starting to pick up.

Conclusion

Customers today are looking for integration of equipment, say suppliers. “Several vendors must coordinate with others and ensure that various machinery functions easily together,” says Grosskopf. “An increased number of customers are seeking single-source responsibility for equipment lines.” 

Kirk agrees. “Ten years ago, pharmaceutical manufacturers were more willing to buy different pieces of equipment and take on the responsibility of integrating them. Today, with the leaner environment, they’re looking to suppliers to provide more-integrated solutions and take on the responsibility for integration.”

PMP News first covered filling equipment in September 1994, with a focus on new filler designs and increased efficiency. Almost 10 years later, developments in automation and equipment have evolved, but customers’ needs remain the same—quick changeovers, cleaning, reliability, flexibility, and more compact machines.

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