Packaging Machinery: Putting the Pieces Together

A packaging line is only as robust as its weakest link.

By Jenevieve Blair Polin
Contributing Editor
Alkar-RapidPak has launched a new side extractable tooling system that allows tools to be removed from the side, which minimizes the risk of operator injury.

Full line integration is the full-service approach to building a packaging line. The opposite approach involves buying line components à la carte or just retrofitting an old, reliable workhorse line with a new component now and then.

Many equipment manufacturers offer full line integration, even if they have to obtain several components from third parties. During the factory acceptance test (FAT), the packaging professional employed by the pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing company will see the entire line on the equipment manufacturer’s floor, in full operation. Only then will the equipment be disassembled, shipped to the packager’s site, reassembled and commissioned, and validated.

Full integration “allows us to provide validation documentation for the entire line,” explains Ernie Bancroft, regional sales manager for Körber Medipak North America Inc. (Clearwater, FL). “You have one project manager running the show, and you have one single point of contact and responsibility.”

Alkar-RapidPak (Lodi, WI) builds horizontal form-fill-seal machinery that is often integrated with machinery from other manufacturers by the medical device manufacturer or an integrator. John Merritt, Alkar-RapidPak’s director, medical business development, describes a current project for a company that is packaging syringes. “They are using a machine from another manufacturer to load the devices into the package that [our machine] makes, and then they have a machine from a third company that off-loads that package into the boxes. From that device manufacturer’s standpoint, it’s of utmost importance that the three different systems communicate effectively,” he stresses. The key to this communication, he adds, is the line’s control system, which in Alkar-RapidPak’s case is the Allen-Bradley Controllogix platform.


The flip side to such promiscuous integration is modularity, which offers some advantages of its own. Some machinery manufacturers, including Uhlmann Pac-Systeme (Laupheim, Germany) and Bosch Packaging Technology (Minneapolis), offer space-saving modules custom-engineered for their own equipment to provide such functions as inspection and printing.

The Variofill in-feed system is one such module designed exclusively for Bosch blister machines. It accommodates complex product shapes, like biconvex and triangular tablets. Variofill is available on new Bosch machines, but the only machine that may be retrofitted with it as an upgrade is the Bosch TLC 1400, according to Uli Unterriker, vice president, pharma solid sales, for Bosch.

Uhlmann this year introduced the ultimate all-in-one system, the Blister Express Center 500 (BEC 500). This system combines a B1550 blister machine equipped with a MultiTab feeder and a C 2504 cartoner. The number “500” refers to the BEC’s performance: 500 packages/minute. “The BEC 500 addresses with its flexibility small batch sizes up to product-launch volumes. When started, the line only takes a few seconds to reach maximum speed in single-lane operation,” says Christoph Lehmann, senior manager at Uhlmann Packaging Systems. All stations and processes work continuously (e.g., forming, filling, and roller-sealing) and are self-regulating. Lightweight tools increase the BEC’s changeover times drastically. “The integrated ‘good product’ philosophy,” explains Lehmann, “allows transfer of only good blisters from the punch to the cartoner module and, consequently, an integrated checkweigher at the end of the cartoner allows only good packages to continue to downstream equipment.” An overall SCADA system from Uhlmann controls the entire packaging process.

MGS Machine offers a Blister Card machine that folds heat-sealed cards or glues blisters onto cards then folds the cards at speeds up to 300 cards per minute.

Some modules, on the other hand, allow a pharmaceutical manufacturer to try out a new technology with a minimal investment. For instance, Bosch recently introduced the Smart Wallet wallet-packer module that may be retrofitted onto a standard horizontal cartoner. “It’s a lower investment than a dedicated wallet line,” Unterriker points out, “so it makes the hurdle lower for these customers to get into the wallet market.”

“Blister carding has been a huge niche for us recently,” adds Tim Allen, regional sales manager for the cartoning and case packing group of MGS Machine Corp. (Maple Grove, MN). MGS is showcasing a blister card folder at Pack Expo International in Chicago this fall. “We have quite a few standard modules that incorporate either heat-sealing or glue-closure technologies,” Allen explains.

For many manufacturers, modularity means flexibility to accommodate future requirements, says Marty Moscowitz, regional manager, northeast, medical and consumer industrial division, for Multivac Inc. (Kansas City, MO), a manufacturer of form-fill-seal machines. Considering the loading area, Moscowitz points out, “there could be a machine 2 ft long or 20 ft long, or if there’s no automation at all, there could be 2 people or 20 people” loading the product. Multivac, therefore, builds its equipment in prewired sections like building blocks that can be easily disconnected and reconnected when more sections are required.

The Conta filler from IMA Nova Packaging Systems uses a high-resolution color vision system to identify rogue tablets and capsules, inspecting for proper shape, color, and integrity.

Equally important, points out Fran Ventura, vice president, sales for Ossid, a division of Pro Mach (Rocky Mount, NC), is to “brainstorm the future needs of the packaging line and be sure that there is ample room in the system’s controls to add additional functionality later.” Ossid provides high-speed tray packing, weighing and labeling, and form-fill-seal solutions. Pro Mach is one of North America’s largest providers of packaging line equipment and integrated solutions.

If a customer needs to add two or three pieces of hardware some years down the line, Ventura says “that will require more programming and software backup. If your initial control system is near capacity, it doesn’t really matter whether the machine is modular to accommodate them. You will need factory support at significant costs to add to the system.”


It’s never too early to bring the packaging equipment manufacturer into the planning process. The ideal time is “before [you] figure out which room [you] want to put the packaging line in,” chuckles Stewart Harvey, vice president and general manager of IMA Nova Packaging Systems (Leominster, MA). The ideal scenario, many equipment manufacturers agree, would be to collaborate with a company that is planning a new building. “If [companies] tell us how many lines they want to put in and what speeds they want to run, we can actually help them with the size of packaging rooms that they are going to need,” Harvey adds.

Rather than using a vision system, IMA Nova Packaging's TruCount uses a fully integrated count verification system in which a large array of photo diodes and detectors scan the product at nearly 2000 times per second after the tablet leaves the slat.

Bancroft of Körber Medipak North America would like to be involved even earlier, before the package design is finalized. Because Körber Medipak includes not only two equipment manufacturing divisions but also the Rondo division that produces materials, the company is also a converter. “We know the materials and we know machinery,” Bancroft explains. “If you are able to get in early enough and if the client is willing to share their needs and their requirements as far as what they want to accomplish with the package, then you can help them tailor the design to meet those objectives [and] at the same time ensure that it can be run on commercially available equipment.”

If a customer has already allocated a room for a packaging line, the integrator will ask for a layout and “lay the line in, leaving all of the necessary space required around the perimeter and any area where there is electrical, as per OSHA standards,” IMA Nova’s Harvey explains. “If we can’t meet OSHA standards, we won’t quote,” he stresses. “We’ll make sure the customer is well aware that the room is too small.”

IMA Nova employs a line simulation tool, Harvey says, “to make sure that we’re actually getting adequate efficiency and identify any design problems with the line layout.” Based on assumptions input by the engineer as to the mean time between failure and mean time to repair, the program provides an efficiency calculation. “Then it runs the whole line and simulates eight hours or a year, whatever time period you want,” Harvey adds.

One way to minimize space requirements is to minimize packaging. Körber Medipak’s Dividella Neotop machine erects a partitioned paperboard carton out of flat stock directly in-line on the machine. This partitioned carton serves as a complete secondary package for parenteral drugs, Bancroft says, eliminating the traditional plastic tray. Eliminating a packaging component also eliminates a piece of equipment needed to form or seal it. It frees up space that would be used to inventory preformed components or raw materials as well as space required to bring the component into the packaging area. It may reduce labor requirements by eliminating the need to continually load the component.

Design innovations and electronic miniaturization have also allowed many manufacturers to shrink key pieces of equipment without sacrificing performance. One example, says Multivac’s Moscowitz, is the R140, a horizontal form-fill-seal machine introduced in Spring 2004. “It is only 9 ft long, and it can be that small because of the advancements in modern control systems and different ways to handle and cut film. We were able to compress what might have taken twice the space.”

The Sureflow Model 8000 from Ossid can produce a wide range of package constructions and configurations using interchangeable package change parts designed specifically for the customer's product.


Pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers may envision a state-of-the-art packaging line running at blazing speeds, but equipment manufacturers stress that the top speed attainable is constrained by the space available for accumulation.

With top-speed blister machines kicking out as many as 1300 blisters a minute, accumulation is becoming a serious requirement. “Usually the minimum that customers are asking for is 5 minutes of accumulation,” says MGS’s Allen. “But even at 300 a minute, that’s a lot of capacity.” MGS, he says, has a unit in development that will fulfill that need within an 8-ft footprint. This unit will be an alternative to the vertical counter stackers MGS currently offers.

Körber Medipak, Bancroft says, is addressing a similar problem with an accumulation device that allows the blister machine to run continuously for long stretches, even if a variety of downstream secondary packages are desired. This late-stage customization employs a pick-and-place system called the BIB-BOB—for blister in box, blister out of box. The device loads newly formed blisters into intermediate magazines, or cardboard sleeves. The manufacturer can send these sleeves elsewhere, “to another part of your building or to another country,” Bancroft points out. There they may be custom packaged, for instance, in display packs or sample packs or with a variety of languages. This system eliminates changeovers on the cartoner on the main line.


There are a variety of issues to consider to facilitate access to machinery, as well as to ensure user safety.

Easy access. With their futuristic designs, many of today’s packaging machines resemble the DeLorean made famous in Back to the Future. Plexiglass panels retract and unfold, and many open up enough to allow an operator to walk inside to perform maintenance or clear jams.

On Körber Medipak’s Dividella machines, for example, the side doors raise straight up in a manner similar to garage doors, Bancroft explains, “so they don’t swing into the work envelope, and they are counterbalanced so that you can actually lift them with your little finger.” At the same time, he adds, the doors are all interlocked for safety, so that an operator cannot open them without requesting a guard door open. Each module has both a front and a back door, so that when both are opened, the operator has complete access to the machine.

The Eclipse cartoner from MGS Machine has a similarly open design, with Lexan polycarbonate guard doors that slide horizontally and then hinge open. Some manufacturers, including MGS, offer streaming videos of their machines in action on their Web sites. These videos provide a quick education regarding features that are otherwise hard to visualize.

Alkar-RapidPak is finding a receptive market for its new patent-pending side-extractable tooling, reports Merritt. “Historically, to make tool changes, one has had to remove large heavy tool sets out through the top of the machine, which is both awkward and time consuming,” he says. Removing tools from the side minimizes heavy lifting, reducing the risk of back injury and tool damage. “The design also allows die-set tools to be accessed without having to cut the bottom film,” explains Merritt, saving film and facilitating rapid tool changes. And operators do not have to undock and push autoloading equipment out of the way for die changes.
Equipment manufacturers strive for design innovations that minimize the need for athletic prowess in operators. The MGS Eclipse, for instance, has a pneumatically operated top hold-down rail that levitates to allow no-sweat clearance of jams.

Ossid’s Ventura warns that accessibility must be safeguarded. “Adding ancillary equipment to the packaging line to perform other needed functions,” without careful planning, he warns, “can and will defeat the built-in accessibility originally designed into the base packaging machine.”

Human-machine interface. The Eclipse features a touch screen human-machine interface (HMI). This system provides on-line self-diagnostic information.

On many machines, points out Ossid’s Ventura, “the HMI is in a standard location where it is convenient for the operator, but the machine technician or electrician may not find it convenient.” He suggests an HMI with a swing arm, versatile enough to face both sides of the machine, as is featured on MGS’s Eclipse.

Multivac, Moscowitz says, is “migrating our machinery to a PC-based OMAC-compliant open-architecture platform.” All the control panels will be touch screens, which he says are “much more user friendly than the traditional control panels.” Multivac has already started shipping units equipped with this feature.

Servo technology. Rapidly becoming the standard on cartoners, servo technology increases accessibility. Bosch introduced a continuous cartoner about five years ago that replaced a barrel-cam in-feed with a servo motion in-feed. The servo feeds product from the back of the machine, unlike the barrel cam, which pushes product into the carton. “Now, that box between the operator and the product and the carton is gone,” so that it does not impede the operator’s view of the operation, Unterriker explains.

A servo-controlled form-fill-seal machine capable of running 10 to 30 cycles per minute (CPM), adds Ossid’s Ventura, “has obvious advantages over a typical machine with pneumatic operation, which might run a maximum of 15 CPM. “Since the array of packs required is much smaller, it will reduce tooling costs, tooling weight, and physical size,” he says. The smaller rollstock required, he points out, “reduces real estate required for storage and reduces the strength required when the operator lifts them and places them on the machine.” The Ossid 8000MH model machine is designed to cruise at 20 to 30 CPM and, with variable speed potential, it can run efficiently at 5 CPM.

Touch screens available for all Multivac form-fill-seal systems feature OMAC-compliant open-architecture control systems.


Quality systems available for packaging lines have become increasingly sophisticated. An example is the Visio4U from the VisioTec division of Uhlmann Packaging Systems L.P. (Towaco, NJ), which will be demonstrated at Pack Expo in Chicago this fall. This system performs four functions in one unit, which is integrated between a blister machine and a cartoner. It offers 100% in-line inspection and can keep up with the fastest machine available, the Uhlmann B 1880, which produces 1300 blisters per minute.

This device first inspects materials for cosmetic defects with a camera system mounted below the track, looking up at the product through the newly formed blister. A conventional vision system inspects the blister from the top, after filling and before sealing. “The more critical side is the bottom, which is going to be visible to the end user,” explains Lehmann at Uhlmann.

The second step in the Visio4U is its most innovative function: nondestructive in-line leakage testing. Each blister enters a sealed chamber, where the tightness of its seal is tested by a combination of vacuum and force sensors. This 100% testing is a step up in quality control from the traditional destructive sampling approach. It is also more sensitive than traditional tests, detecting leaks from holes as small as 10 µm, as opposed to 40 µm.

The final steps are printing and print inspection. “We print only on blisters that have passed all quality tests,” Lehmann adds. (For more on this topic, see senior editor David Vacsek’s article, “Focusing on Inspection,” PMPN May 2006.) The principle of the Visio4U system incorporates the philosophy of process analytical technology (PAT), which involves in-line monitoring of product quality and feeding back potentially critical values to upstream equipment for readjustment.

IMA Nova Packaging Systems puts a similar emphasis on quality in its bottling lines. “We believe that the tablet counter is the heart of the line, because it’s going to guarantee accuracy and quality,” says Harvey. For example, IMA Nova’s TruCount system, which fits on slat fillers for high-speed lines, allows the user to verify the correct count in every bottle. IMA Nova’s new Conta electronic counter, Harvey adds, “is being called revolutionary in the industry because it actually uses a vision system to not only count the product but also inspect it and reject any individual tablet that it believes is not correct.”

Quality control at the end stage of packaging is essential, points out Alkar-RapidPak’s Merritt. “Consider a syringe line—that’s the type of product that would most often be integrated and automated to a high degree. Even though the sterile package is a primary function that the customer is looking for and that we supply, in an integrated line it’s not surprising to find that the packaging machinery is the lesser part of the capital investment. But a failure of that part of the system brings it all to a halt. We actually carry a significant portion of the risk of the product,” he adds, because a failure to maintain sterility affects product performance and is often the cause of recalls.


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