Ignacio Muñoz-Guerra, General Director, AutoPak Engineering CorporationNo business can afford to operate inefficiently. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are continually looking for ways to reduce costs and waste, improve productivity and increase capacity on existing packaging lines – all of which contribute to enhanced product quality and increased bottom line profits.
Following are some tips and techniques for improving the efficiency of key components in the sterile packaging process, including conveyors, inspection systems, buffer systems, ergonomic stations and robotics. Taken together, these easy-to-implement methods can help ensure on-time production schedules and eliminate preventable production problems, which can add up to significant savings in time and expense.
Productivity on the MoveConveyors are an important part of every packaging process, as they facilitate the movement of product from station to station. To make these systems more efficient, it is essential to limit product disturbance. Disturbances include product rocking due to inappropriately adjusted guide rails, bottle flipping during the transfer between two conveyors or excessive vibration on pulsating thermoplastic belts.
To minimize these disturbances, special attention must be paid to a range of small details. For example, when changing the size of containers being transported, operators need to adjust the width of guide rails to accommodate the different dimensions. Well-designed conveyor systems should allow for repeatable positive positioning of guide rails through mechanical stops or position feedback. These features facilitate quick, accurate setup and allow operators to open or close a section of conveyor guide rails to suit the different-sized products. In addition to quick adjustment, these features should provide a digital readout, color-coding or other methods that indicate specific guide rail positions for different sized containers. This information allows operators to establish pre-set standards, eliminating guesswork and saving time. Operators simply program the container size that will be used on each individual run.
At conveyor transfer points, product spillage becomes a very real possibility. To minimize this problem – and reduce operating costs and increase productivity at the same time – incorporate straight-line transfers into conveyor system design, rather than side transfers. A one-point adjustment guide rail set-up offers control of both conveyors from one place, saving additional time.
Another way to reduce product spillage is to minimize thermoplastic belt pulsation. Some of the most common causes of pulsation are inappropriate chain length and obstacles in the chain path, such as loose screws. Excessive product load and insufficient torque are other possibilities.
Proper maintenance is an essential part of keeping conveyor systems running smoothly. Conduct visual inspections after each product run for chain elongation and loose parts. By taking this step, many issues can be resolved before production resumes, saving significant time and expense.
Inspect Your Way to SafetyMost sterile packaging lines include inspection systems to ensure the safety and accuracy of pharmaceutical products. These systems perform a range of important functions – from verifying proper cap placement, foil presence and label positioning to confirming the accuracy of lot numbers and expiration dates and adequate product presence. If just one of these factors is missing or incorrect, the line must be stopped to allow remedial action to be taken – making it clear why inspection systems can minimize production downtime.
Most downtime generated by these systems is due to improper set-up during changeover between presentations (products). To ensure proper adjustment, inspection systems should feature positive engagement with feedback, a mechanical system that maintains proper positioning and provides information about the particular location of the inspecting device. Examples of positive engagement with feedback are acme screws with digital read outs, slides with position display and servomotors with operator interfaces.
When evaluating new inspection systems, be sure to investigate the machine’s changeover method, being careful to avoid adjustment features such as slots, slides with or without rulers, and aluminum extrusion slides without position feedback.
Keep it MovingBuffer systems are designed to keep both upstream and downstream production line equipment running during brief stoppages and helps ensure constant product flow during speed changes. Integrated directly in-line and using minimum floorspace, buffer systems can help increase productivity on sterile lines where there are scheduled stoppages (labeler roll change, tape roll change etc.) or where unscheduled stoppages are frequent. In the latter case, a downtime study should be performed on the line to determine if a buffer is necessary.
For any new equipment being purchased, OEMs can provide the theoretical or historical downtime of the machine as a reference point. The system’s guaranteed efficiency can also be used as a guideline for downtime duration and frequency. In any case, scheduled and unscheduled downtime should be identified and an appropriate buffer should be considered to help maintain the line production balance during stoppages.
The Need for SpeedTying in closely with buffer systems is dynamic speed change, or the capability of equipment to change its operating speed given external factors. Usually, this involves the back-up level experienced at the infeed end of the equipment, due to either an increase of speed at upstream systems or downtime at any downstream equipment. Dynamic speed control allows equipment to change speed in order to maintain an optimal back-up/buffer previous to the equipment. With dynamic speed control, the line remains well balanced in order to increase overall line efficiency.
Packing It InErgonomic stations increase line efficiency by maximizing operator comfort, leading to increased or maintained output over time. These stations are ideal solutions for lines that produce low volume drugs, introductory drugs runs for which future volume is uncertain, sample packaging or products that frequently experience changes in packaging components or volume requirements.
Ergonomic stations minimize operator movement, maximize posture comfort, maintain optimal light and noise levels, and keep packaging components at a comfortable reach. Stations can be designed to accommodate a wide range of case sizes and line layout configurations.
Using Robots to Handle the LoadRobots play a critical role in pharmaceutical packaging, which often requires fast speeds, consistency and high levels of repetition. Unlike humans, robots can perform the same task over and over without experiencing fatigue or interruption, helping to improve productivity, product quality and worker safety. For sterile packaging lines, installing robots with stainless steel enclosures will ensure that sanitary conditions are maintained.
With the capacity to work on multiple processes at the same time, robots also offer a high level of flexibility. With a few minor alterations, robots can accommodate new products in mere minutes. Products are handled gently, minimizing damage. In addition, robots maximize confined working spaces, eliminating the aisles and emergency routes required in areas where humans work.
Analyzing DowntimeUsing tracking software to analyze downtime allows plants to significantly improve efficiencies and production by capturing detailed information from equipment and operators and providing analysis tools that identify opportunities for improvement.
Information can help pharmaceutical packagers determine how factors like equipment, product type, shift time and operator impact different production lines, which systems need to be serviced or replaced, and where product availability problems exist. With this type of feedback, plant staff can make impressive improvements in profitability by identifying and spreading best practices and targeting maintenance activities. It also becomes easy to quantify the benefits required to justify capital projects.
Choosing the Right PartnerTaking steps to improving line productivity optimizes manufacturing and can help reduce time-to-market cycles – a key asset in a highly competitive industry. Choosing the equipment that meets individual requirements and is flexible enough to accommodate new products or tasks is essential, making systems integrators like AutoPak with the experience and resources required to ensure proper installation and service an ideal solution.
For new projects, integrators should be involved at a very early stage – definitely long before a purchase order is issued. When involved in conceptual design and development, integrators can identify all line requirements- buffer needs, guide rail systems, utilities distribution, downtime monitoring etc. – so that all the equipment will be in sync, preventing a myriad of potential problems down the road.
When choosing an integrator, communication is key. Be sure the company is accessible and responsive to your needs. Determine if the integrator’s staff has sufficient depth, background, resources and expertise for specific applications and examine post-installation support for maintenance and troubleshooting services.