What's Next In: Packaging

Dec 02, 2007
Volume 31, Issue 12

Although the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry tends to be more like the tortoise than the hare when it comes to adopting new ideas, pharmaceutical packaging will be dramatically different 30 years from now in 2037.

Forces are already at work to lay the groundwork for the transformation. Here are seven predictions for how pharmaceutical packaging will become easier to use, less costly to produce, and better protected over the next 30 years.

Pharmaceutical packaging lines will be more automated.

Robots, software, servo motors and drives, and standards that help devices, machines, and systems work together more seamlessly will bring a new level of integration and automation to pharmaceutical packaging lines. The result will be lower labor costs, quicker changeover, higher productivity, and more consistent quality.

In some industries, robots have already taken over the palletizing function. Robots also are gaining a commanding presence in other end-of-line operations like case packing and are found in increasing numbers for functions like cartoning and kit assembly. One robotic system designed for unscrambling containers relies on a vision-equipped robot with a quick-change end-of-arm tool. It picks pairs of containers from a random stream and places them in the proper orientation for the next operation. The compact system requires 48 feet of floor space and is rated at 20 cycles per minute (Robox Vi work cell, Schneider Packaging, Brewerton, NY).

More sophisticated end-of-arm tooling, robots equipped with vision, pairing of robots in a single work cell or deployment of a robot with two arms broaden the variety of pick-and-place moves that can be performed. At the same time, improvements in robot programming simplify setup, changeover, and integration with other equipment, thus increasing flexibility.

One dual-arm robot offers 15 axes of motion (seven per arm, plus a single axis for base rotation) and will soon be equipped with three-dimensional vision and force sensing. Arms can work independently or together and are each capable of handling a payload of 10 kilograms. In effect, this robot will be able to "see" and "feel" (DIA10 dual individual arm robot, Motoman, Inc., West Carrollton, OH).

Other robots are designed to work in clean room environments. One splash-proof tabletop model offers six axes of motion for long-reach tasks, optimum acceleration, and maximum working velocities. Capable of a 650-millimeter reach with a 5-kilogram payload, the unit meets ISO and DIN standards for clean room operation and is rated class 5 according to DIN EN ISO 14644-1 and class 100 according to US Federal Standard 209 E (KR5 Sixx CR clean room robot, KUKA Robotics Corp., Clinton Township, MI).

On today's packaging lines, a growing number of functions are governed by software, and this trend will continue. Servo motors and drives, when coupled with software, help automate changeover so all physical adjustments can be made with the push of a single button.

Software also is just beginning to be used for applications like the data collection, storage, and analysis needed to support track-and-trace capability and pedigree records. Performance management software, another relative newcomer, monitors packaging line operation in real-time using metrics such as changeover, overall equipment effectiveness, and operational availability. This visibility makes it possible to identify the root cause(s) of problems like minor stops and eliminate them (Informance Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence suite, Informance International, Northbrook, IL, http://www.informance.com/; TrakSYS real-time production monitoring software, Parsec Automation Corp., Brea, CA, http://www.parsecautomation.com/).

RFID will be universally used at the item level.

By 2037 each primary package will carry an RFID tag with a unique code. Tags will activate packaging line operations, such as labeling, provide data for pedigree records, and help track and trace product through the supply chain to prevent counterfeiting and diversion.

Smart shelves and cabinets that interact with the tag and enable automated inventory tracking will become the norm in hospital and retail settings. This concept also will spread to the home where tags communicating with smart medicine cabinets or other devices will be able to boost patient compliance by providing visual or audible alerts regarding dosage times, refill reminders or other information.

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