Robotic Automation Enhances Fill/Finish

December 10, 2018

AqVida, winner of the 2018 CPhI Excellence in Pharma Award for manufacturing technology and equipment, identifies advantages of robotics compared to conventional automation in fill/finish operations.

Robotic automation in filling lines offers advantages over conventional automation, such as reduced human intervention and greater flexibility. Pharmaceutical Technology spoke with Dwight You, head of Production at AqVida, which won the 2018 CPhI Excellence in Pharma Award: Manufacturing Technology and Equipment, about the company’s robotic filling line. 

PharmTech: How is robotic automation used in your filling line, and what advantages have you found?

You (AqVida): We designed a filling line in which three robotic arms have replaced the conventional ratchet-and-star-wheel system so that we can save process time, and we incorporated some additional features to save cost. Conventional filling lines have many size parts, such as star wheels and corkscrew formats, that guide and move vials. So, to produce a product with a different vial size, one must remove all size parts and install new parts, which are expensive, heavy, large, and numerous. Often, in each set, there are more than 20 to 30 parts that are more than one meter long and heavier than several kilograms. If this replacement is performed inside isolator with gloves, then the operation is either impossible due to the volume of replacement parts, which cannot fit into the isolator, or it is dangerous and risky due to the movement and installation of heavy and large parts that could jeopardize the safety and sterility of the isolator environment. Also, it takes two to three hours to replace one set of size parts and finish the line clearance. Two sets take five to six hours; three sets could easily translate to one full shift spent just on replacing size parts.

We drafted our user requirement specification to save cost and time. The main requirements were an isolator filling line because our products are sterile, minimum of reject losses, no size parts inside isolator(s), certain process capacity (about 3000 vials/hour), and a smaller footprint. The conventional filling line could not offer us a solution that fit these requirements, so we decided to design a conceptual filling line that uses robotic arms. Unquestionably, the increased quality and safety of the product were the ultimate goals.

By adopting and optimizing the robotic arms, we have removed all size parts inside the isolator. With communication between the various sensors and the robotic arms, we were able to minimize losses due to under-filled vials, vials with no stoppers, and vials with no caps. These vials are normally rejected by conventional filling lines due to the linear ratchet motion, but the robotic arms are able to retrace the process so that these vials can be amended and saved. In the end, this filling line saved cost and time. It also increased safety for the operators and the isolator environment, which, in turn, increased the quality and safety of the product.

PharmTech: How does robotic arm/sensor automation increase flexibility in a filling system?

You (AqVida): We designed the line based on our customer requirements and market demand, which required, from one large bulk batch, to fill many different volumes in various sizes of vials. For conventional filling lines, new size parts must be designed and manufactured for a new vial size. For this line, the robots just need the dimensions of the new vial. Just a few touches on the human-machine interface screen would allow us to fill different volume of liquid into different sizes of vials. After short trial runs and some minor optimization and qualification, the line is ready for a new vial size.

Once the last vial of one size exits the line, the operator will load another ‘recipe’ for a different vial size and filling volume. This pre-programmed recipe will let the robots know where to go to pick up the vial with new size. 

PharmTech: Do robotic lines require different training or skills for the human operator?

You (AqVida): The operational principle is different compared to the conventional filling line. The setup procedure is somewhat different and much simpler because there are no size parts to install. Therefore, training does not require any special or different skills for the human operator.