Many pharmaceuticals are produced in premetered doses: as tablets, for example, or as powders for inhalation or for dissolution
before intravenous or oral delivery. Filling processes into tablet dies, capsules, and other vessels, are therefore a routine
aspect of pharmaceutical manufacture. The goal of these processes is to ensure the consistent and precise extraction of the
required dose at an acceptable processing speed.
Filling machines may have complex and varied designs and geometries, depending on the application for which they are used,
and on the properties of the process material. Oral capsules, for example, typically have a fill weight in the range of 50
to 500 mg, while dry-powder inhaler (DPI) applications require a much smaller mass, usually between 0.5 and 15 mg, and tend
to involve highly cohesive formulations. The optimal filling procedure is different in each case, but well-controlled, uninterrupted
powder flow through the selected geometries is a prerequisite for efficient processing. Success is judged by the consistency
of the fill weight.
Identifying a suitable filling solution for a given formulation at the outset minimizes operability problems over the long
term. Relevant characterization of the formulation (i.e., measuring the properties that predict how it will behave during
processing) is the first step. This principle is especially true in the context of recent regulatory initiatives, such as
quality by design, which emphasize a thorough understanding of the process-control space. To select the best filling geometry
and properly control manufacture, it is necessary to measure the powder in a way that reveals how it will perform as it flows
through the filling machine.
This article details a recent experimental study by Freeman Technology and Innovative Technology for Custom Machinery (ITCM)
to explore correlations between powder properties and behavior in two filling geometries. The results confirmed that no one-size-fits-all
filling solution exists, but pinpointed the properties that can be usefully measured to achieve a compatible powder–plant
match in filling applications.
Different geometries for different formulations
A recent study evaluated the performance of four pharmaceutical excipients (i.e., S1, S2, S3, and S4) for two filling configurations
using a commercially available dosing and filling machine. Figure 1 shows configurations A and B. In both configurations,
powder flows down through a channel to a pocket on a rotating wheel. As the wheel rotates, powder is transferred from the
pocket to a waiting receptacle, and the wheel rotates back to the filling position.
Figure 1: Filling geometry configuration A (left) and filling geometry configuration B (right).
The volume of the pocket into which powder flows is the same (~410 mm3 ) in both geometries. On the other hand, with configuration A, the feed channel is narrower and more closely matched with
the diameter of the pocket opening. In contrast, the feed channel in configuration B is much wider, encircling the entrance
to the pocket.
In both systems, the extraction of a consistent volume relies on the complete filling of the pocket every time the wheel rotates,
and on the efficient transfer of that volume to the waiting receptacle. Consistent volume translates directly into consistent
mass, which is the goal of the process, as long as bulk density remains the same. Process performance for each of the excipients
was therefore described using a process-capability index, Cpk, derived from the weight variance of the doses produced (1).
Measuring powder properties
To fully characterize the properties of each of the four formulations, personnel subjected them to multifunctional testing
using a powder rheometer. During the past decade, powder rheometers have evolved to offer multiple measuring techniques in
a single instrument, including shear, bulk, dynamic, and axial methods. Personnel measured shear, bulk, and dynamic properties
to quantify properties, such as cohesiveness, flow function, aeration ratio, basic flow energy, and permeability.
Cohesion and flow function are parameters derived from shear-test data. With this methodology, one powder face is sheared
against another to ascertain the strength of particle interactions. Shear testing is a well-established, widely recognized
technique, but has the limitation that powders are measured in a consolidated state. Information about how the powders will
behave when flowing freely or when aerated is derived theoretically rather than measured directly. High flow functions typically
are associated with powders with low cohesion that are expected to flow freely, whereas low flow functions assume high cohesion.
Dynamic testing is a modern technique that involves measuring the forces acting on a blade as it rotates along a defined path
through the powder sample. These measurements are used to determine the energy required to induce flow. The powder is measured
in motion, hence the term "dynamic." This technique enables the testing of consolidated, conditioned, aerated, and fluidized
powders. Aeration ratio, for example, is a parameter that indicates the extent to which flow energy changes when the sample
is aerated. Generally speaking, the flow energy of cohesive materials changes little when the sample is aerated. The attractive
forces between particles resist particle separation, and the air channels through the powder bed, having relatively little
effect. In contrast, with less cohesive materials, the air flows between the particles, substantially facilitating movement
within the bed and dramatically reducing flow energy. Aeration is therefore a complementary way of investigating cohesiveness
in a way that arguably reflects in-process behavior more closely than shear testing alone. Reference 2 provides a more complete
description of all of the powder testing techniques used in this study.