Packaging in the pink
Pill packagers take advantage of new hermetic wrapping system
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
In 1968, Warner Chilcott was a sales and marketing organization focused on branded pharmaceutical products in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. The company has since expanded to acquire U.S. brands. It now produces women’s healthcare and dermatological products, including a wide range of birth control pills, at a facility on the eastern side of the island of Puerto Rico.
Its existing packaging operation is complex, producing blisters filled with birth control pills, some wrapped together with a patient-information insert, a wallet holder, and desiccant, and some even hermetically sealed. As the company increased hermetic sealing of blisters, the existing wrappers could not cope with increasing production demand. The company finally realized it needed a reliable, high-performance system to meet their stringent pharmaceutical quality assurance needs.
“Regulatory wise, standards are leaning toward a more robust online inspection,” said Jose Carrasquillo, Warner Chilcott’s packaging technology administrator. “In a multi-product packaging line, performing 100% verification of all components is a must and cannot be replaced by human inspection due to fatigue and ergonomics at such high speeds. Barcode readers are useful to distinguish between each product prescribing patient insert, he said. This avoids sending the client the incorrect drug information in the prescribing patient insert.
A high-speed hermetic wrapping system was the answer. The new system has automated most of the inspection required to produce the finished product at the current standards, Carrasquillo said. “Also instead of delegating the inspection to a second machine (checkweigher), the system has incorporated presence inspections within its own process, eliminating the need for other non-producing machines.”
By purchasing the entire system (component feeders and wrappers), the company could find the reliability they needed, “particularly at the interface points,” said Ken Hattem, a manager in pharmaceutical and medical applications at SigPack Systems, a Beringen, Switzerland-based packaging and handling system manufacturer in Fort Lee, N.J. The new system manages the four-product component (blister, wallet holder, patient insert, and desiccant) seamlessly and can handle a consistent feed rate of 200 units per minute. “The motion of the cross-sealing head allows for 30 times the contact time when sealing at both high and low rates,” Hattem said. Carrasquillo said he believes the hermetic sealing feature is actually “the most robust aspect of the machine. The detail observed during the design of the extended dwell time sealing tool has eradicated events of leakers from the process and the artistic factor from set-ups,” he said.
The system verifies all components entering the wrapper chain. A feeding control verifies the presence of each component with an integrated latch-out function to reduce waste. Only a properly-wrapped product with all components is able to travel to the downstream cartoner. Independent servo drives operate the product carrier chain and cross-crimper head, and a no-gap/no-seal feature means the heads will not come down on the components should they position themselves incorrectly within the film tube. Any invalid product is rejected, and the rejection is verified in accordance with pharmaceutical industry requirements, all without any break in the system’s operation.
Human machine interface
The human machine interface (HMI) aspect of the system is the “gateway to the PLC that controls all the functions of the system,” Hattem said. The HMI allows the operator to monitor all functions of the system, prepare new recipes, and maintain and troubleshoot the system. “The good thing is the system mainly runs itself if you keep the component feeders full and have the standby roll of film in place for it to be automatically spliced,” he said. “However when things go wrong, having a well designed, ergonomic operator interface allows the operator to swiftly assess the problem and take corrective steps. The open design of the system allows operators and maintenance people to easily access all parts of it. Most of the change parts are tool-less in nature, making it very easy to work with the machine.”
The HMI factor is important in the process “because we need to continuously monitor the critical parameters of the machine like temperature speed and pressure, the very graphical way the HMI has arranged these parameters reduces documentation errors,” Carrasquillo said. The ergonomic touch screens make the interaction between machine and workers “more practical and efficient,” he said. The HMI features also are “user friendly. Nice explanatory graphics and alarm messages help pinpoint problems faster.” Also since the HMI features are so user friendly with all the set-up parameters, “it is easier to make changes or adjustments without jeopardizing security,” he said. The HMI contains information “useful for production folks, like downtime, stop counters, and yield.”
Vision systems help meet regulations
Within the pharmaceutical industry, all batch codes and expiration dates need to be verified. To ensure this, a vision system verifies the print on the individually wrapped blisters and keeps a log of this process for traceability purposes. The system detects any incorrect data, which triggers product rejection, saving time and costs by reducing machinery downtime and waste.
Carrasquillo said the new system has given him peace of mind, knowing workers can meet speed requirements. He has definitely seen “higher outputs, a more robust packaging process, and less time performing unnecessary setups.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
Survival of the fittest
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
Robots have seen use in industry to replace human movements for years, but rarely has industry found use for a humanoid robot that actually simulates the human movement. That could change with the development of a new dynamic anthropomorphic robot with intelligence (DARwin). “In industry, usually you have very specific applications you want a robot to perform. You have a robot arm you use for welding, or other robots have specific tasks,” said Karl Muecke, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va., and and coadvisor of the humanoid design team. While automotive plants have long operated with robots, with DARwin, “a human might stand and operate a machine or do manipulating tasks that other robots aren’t capable of,” Muecke said. A humanoid, such as DARwin, could supplement human tasks, such as operating another machine. “Or you could have a robot operating another robot,” he said.
The best news for industry so far is the actual process Muecke and his team used to design DARwin. The process of designing and prototyping a product could take years from the theoretical design to the actual working prototype. In industry, machine builders especially see value in being able to take an idea and translate it into a working product they can show industry to see if it will hit home. But the DARwin project “shows you can use graphical system design software tools to quickly go from the concept and theory phase to actually getting something functioning,” said Todd Dobberstein, industrial and embedded technologies manager at National Instruments in Austin, Tex. “These graphical development tools are more high level and abstracted for the user, but still very powerful, high performance e-tools,” he said. The beauty of such a project lies in being able to graphically program a field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip (a popular technology within embedded and control systems to customize features within products), Dobberstein said. “Traditionally, programming in an FPGA was difficult, so you’d have a lot of expertise in using different text-based programming languages. You had to know a lot about the hardware design to program these FPGAs used inside embedded control and acquisition systems. Now graphical programming tools are available for programming FPGAs. This means more people can leverage the power of an FPGA because you don’t have to be an expert to program it.”
A key reason high-level graphical programming tools are so valuable is getting your product to market more quickly. “You can use these tools not only with FPGAs but with processors, floating point processors in industries, such as industrial control and automation,” Dobberstein said. They can also see use in packaging and inspection machines, test systems for military, testing systems for the automotive industry, and within communications (testing custom digital and communication protocols).
While speed to market is a big draw, the other advantage is building in reliability of a product. To be able to use the same software and hardware from the design and prototyping all the way through to deployment means “you can maintain consistency with regard to software and hardware architecture throughout the whole process,” Dobberstein said. “If you’ve maintained the exact software programming language from design to prototype and to deploy that software, you’ll be able to test a lot of times during the process without changing it. So machine builders can be more confident their embedded control within a machine will be more reliable because they didn’t have to change software and hardware from design to prototype.”
Students working on the DARwin project were able to use design tools within a graphical programming environment to design the model of their control system, and go through and design the control system for the robot itself, then use that same software to develop their prototype. However, the humanoid in an industrial setting is pretty conceptual right now because humanoid robots are still in development. Muecke said industrial applications have not been tested on the market yet because “in industry you have a specific application you want a robot to do. So you make it just for that. A humanoid is a generic platform you could use for a multitude of tasks, which isn’t actually needed yet in industry. It isn’t cost effective in industry to spend money on a generic platform when you can use specific robots to do just what you want them to do.”
But he hasn’t given up hope. “So far we’ve been using robotic arms to replace tasks a human would do,” Muecke said. One task is a using a welding torch in a robot’s hand. “If a robot could manipulate human tools, then you’d have one robot manipulate all tools a human would,” he said. “Then that would be a cost effective resource. Right now it’s still in the research phase. So a robot hasn’t been perfected. We need to do that and address safety and costs before it can hit the market.”