When to Refurbish or to Replace Your Form-Fill-Seal Machine

Manufacturers of form-fill-seal machines offer their insight on whether to part with—or part up—your system.

Daphne Allen, Editor

Greg Diestel has found a way to save $50,000 in Tyvek and $34,000 in PETG a year—purchase a new form-fill-seal machine. Senior packaging engineer for a leading ophthalmic device manufacturer, he recently purchased the new machine to package a variety of cutting instruments for cataract and other eye surgeries. Although these savings do not pay back the cost of the machine in 3 years (the time frame his firm uses as a payback benchmark), and refurbishing his old equipment would definitely have been cheaper, he feels it is worth it. "The old machines, in operation for 12–16 years, definitely still get the job done, but there are other factors that swayed me."

Photo of a four-side-seal machine courtesy of Doyen Medipharm Inc.

In need of greater efficiency and an easier means of meeting requirements for GMP compliance, he was at a crossroads—either upgrade and refurbish his current machine, or purchase a brand-new one. With the addition of a calibration system and bar code scanners to his older machine, he was able to keep sealing and forming parameters under control and to prevent any mix-ups with the bar-coded cut sheets used as lidstock. "The machine is OK now," he remembers thinking, "But what about in five years? It would definitely be cheaper to replace parts, but what parts would fail next?"

Diestel ended up scrapping the older form-fill-seal machine in favor of a brand-new unit from Multivac Inc. (Kansas City, MO), the R530. The new machine has increased his line speed by 30%, and it can hold temperatures to within ±1°C. "It's programmed to shut down at ± 4°C, and it never has," adds Diestel. He is also enjoying a number of other state-of-the-art features, including servo drives, web guides that prevent top-web drift, chains that don't stretch, pressure and vacuum transducers on forming and sealing stations that Diestel calls "far more accurate than gauges," and a man-machine interface custom-built to prompt operators to enter badge numbers and lot numbers for inventory tracking purposes. "It's built for overall reliability," he adds.

Right now, somewhere in the world, either during routine maintenance, periodic validation, or daily changeover, another packaging professional is facing a similar crossroads.

"These machines have tremendous life—there's no planned obsolescence. To upgrade and rebuild or to purchase new is a big decision," says Joe Martin, general manager of Multivac's medical division. "The rational thing is to refurbish your form-fill-seal equipment. We are often called upon to undertake refurbishing to bring a machine close to the current state of technology. But when you really look at what it takes to rebuild, you could end up spending 70–80% of the cost of a new machine."

Refurbishing requests don't surprise Steve Joosten, product manager for Circle Packaging Machinery (Green Bay, WI). He admits that the recent slowdown "has certainly made companies look more closely at machine purchases," and that "companies may be trying to get a few more years out of existing machines." But he says that such stretching of machine life is common in any economy and that he hasn't seen a tremendous increase in requests. Martin agrees.

John Soporowski of Igeis Technologies LLC (Old Bridge, NJ), an independent sales agent for Klöckner Medipak Inc. (Clearwater, FL), puts it this way: "Refurbishing and complete rebuilds will always have a significant place in the market, especially as machines age and the quantities of available machines for rebuilds increases."

Designed for high-speed device pouching, Doyen Medipharm's Four-Side-Seal Machine can store up to 50 different package and printing configurations.

To help you decide what direction you should take when you stand at your own crossroads, representatives from a number of form-fill-seal machine manufacturers offer their advice. While the primary goal of these companies is to sell and support new machines, a number of these companies offer field or factory refurbishing services, which give them the experience and expertise to help you determine which road to take.

DETERMINING OBSOLESCENCE

John Merritt, managing director, medical packaging systems, of Tiromat Medical Packaging (Avon, MA), says that refurbishing "can be a good idea where time is the primary concern, but if the state of the art is required on the part of the medical device manufacturer, it is often not cost-effective to add these features through rebuilding."

Soporowski adds that there are frequently many challenges to effectively remanufacture a machine. "Most challenging are the older electrical systems that require replacement or updating in order for the machine to be validated in the pharmaceutical and medical device packaging world. Costs for such upgrades along with mechanical refurbishing can quickly drive the cost to near the price of a new system, without the benefits of other technical improvements."

New systems have several benefits, says Soporowski. "Machinery today has certainly become more operator and mechanic friendly through the use of quick toolless-changeover components, servo drives, and advanced man-machine- interface controls," says Soporowski. Other modernizations that can make a packager's job easier include PC-driven menus, PC text generators, and modems that permit remote diagnosis.

Ray Johnson, president of Doyen Medipharm Inc. (Lakeland, FL), which offers both form-fill-seal machines and four-side-seal machines, says that, given the economics of refurbishing, and more importantly, the cost of running a 20- to 30-year-old machine, "a new machine purchase can easily be cost justified. Not only do the new machines run with less waste and less human intervention (operators, service, maintenance), but as a result, one new machine can sometimes replace three to five of the older-style machines based on the higher throughput possible, either through faster cycling or multiple-lane processing."

 

 

STEPS TO REFURBISHING

Martin agrees with Soporowski in that replacing electronics can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor, but that is one of the first things he suggests upgrading. "We remove and replace all the machine electronics, even the cabinets, mainly for safety upgrade reasons," says Martin. Multivac carries out such "surgery" at its retrofitting and refurbishing plant in Kansas City, MO.

Such an electronic upgrade can run up to $25,000 in labor and parts, says Marty Moscowitz, eastern regional manager of Multivac's medical division. He adds that companies also lose machine uptime during such an upgrade.

Joosten explains that Circle Packaging has done more than a dozen retrofits of its multiple-lane four-side-seal machines. Upgrades include those from clutch-brake-driven (mechanical) motion control to servomotor (electronic) motion control and from PLS to PLC; additions include validation packages and touch screens.

If medical device manufacturers already have a machine with relatively new electronics, they may only need mechanisms that help facilitate and expedite changeover, such as quick-change forming plates, says Moscowitz. Russ Garofalo, vice president of sales and marketing for Mahaffy & Harder Engineering Co. (Fairfield, NJ), adds that nowadays there seems to be an increasing demand for tooling with smaller formats that can be changed and serviced by a single operator.

Tooling can also be rebuilt to facilitate process monitoring for validation, among other things. Martin says that redundant thermocouples and sensors that monitor sealing temperature and pressure can be incorporated into tooling. However, redundant controllers cannot.

In addition, companies routinely upgrade their printing systems, says Moscowitz.

For medical device manufacturers who are basically pleased with the function and process control of their form-fill-seal equipment, there is another way to bring such equipment up to a higher level. A fully independent PC-based system can be added for process data acquisition, says Donald Barcan of Donbar Industries Inc., a Long Valley, NJ–based medical package engineering consulting firm. These systems are attached to the equipment using independent and calibrated sensors to record process parameters cycle by cycle. These systems also include process alarms. "The data storage is usually integrated in Microsoft Excel and can be available in network systems to both engineering and quality personnel. These systems are available at prices ranging from $18,000 to $40,000 installed, depending on the number of sensors required and software modifications," Barcan explains.

When it comes to choosing a rebuilder, Tiromat's Merritt recommends that device manufacturers be careful of third-party rebuilders. "There are independent rebuilders out there selling only on price, but their ability to rebuild equipment with even remotely current state of the art is severely limited. They are often rebuilding with yesterday's technology. Independent rebuilders sometimes have limited support capabilities. My advice to the marketplace is 'Be careful.' If you really feel you can live with rebuilds, deal with one of the major original equipment manufacturers."

While Garofalo says that Mahaffy & Harder maintains good relationships with independent refurbishers, he feels that his staff is the best educated to perform rebuilds. "We can better recognize what needs to be serviced, modified, or upgraded because of our extensive experience with the equipment," he says.

REFURBISHING LIMITATIONS

Despite these upgrades, today's generation of form-fill-seal equipment just can't be beat. Machine manufacturers agree that if you require more flexibility, higher speeds, and easier changeover and maintenance on your form- fill-seal lines, it is going to be difficult and expensive, if not impossible, to bring an older machine up to new standards. Even if the electronics and control systems of form-fill-seal machines can be upgraded, there are some features that can't be added on.

For instance, Martin explains that on older Multivac models, lifting systems were built into the side frame. "Now they are independent, so they are stronger and faster and have more closing force," he explains. In addition, older models had limited adjustment of forming and sealing stations, but now they are independent, mounted on Thomson rods and bearings, so they can be positioned anywhere along the machine.

Garofalo explains that Mahaffy & Harder's current equipment offers features that can provide coordinated control of web motion and forming and sealing stations, helping to increase output by as much as 30%. Older machines simply cannot be rebuilt to feature such capability, he says.

New machines can also be equipped with multiple dies. "To change over, simply turn one off and the other on—it can save as much as two hours, giving you more production time," Martin explains.

Many earlier form-fill-seal machines were constructed primarily of aluminum, Martin adds. Today, most for the medical industry, as well as for the food industry, are made of stainless steel, like Mahaffy & Harder's Models 800 and 8000.

 

 

CONCLUSION

Use of the state of the art could even lead to cost savings. "Space is at a premium on today's packaging lines," says Garofalo. "Companies want to run several products on one piece of equipment. To do so, that equipment must offer flexibility in changeover and easy maintenance." Getting more out of one or two machines "means a lot, since packagers don't have to add more square footage to their operation."

Johnson sums it up this way: "Although your old machines are paid for, the waste, added labor, and lost opportunity costs relative to a new machine can be significantly higher. Plus, add in the improved quality and proven repeatability that new machines offer, and the evidence in favor of a new machine is overwhelming."

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