What's Next In: Packaging

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-12-02-2007, 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.

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, www.informance.com; TrakSYS real-time production monitoring software, Parsec Automation Corp., Brea, CA, 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.

Packaging will be more interactive.

Nanotechnology, printed electronics, and RFID will provide on-package tools that alert consumers if a product is out-of-date or has experienced tampering or temperature abuse. With greeting cards that play music or record personal messages for later playback already on the market, the commercialization of low-cost talking packages seems closer to reality than to science fiction. Packaging with this type of communication ability could provide information about product side effects or interactions, as well as reminders about dosage times.

Packages will carry Braille information to help sight-impaired consumers worldwide.

The European Union (EU, Brussels, Belgium) already requires drug packaging to carry tactile information about product name, dosage, and expiration date to help sight-impaired consumers (EU 2001/83/EC). It's only a matter of time before this requirement spreads beyond the EU. Embossing is one way to provide this information, but a glue dot dispensing system can apply 0.5-millimeter characters on any substrate. One compact system includes an adhesive melter, three-module dispensing gun, and Braille code pattern controller, capable of interpreting multiple languages into Braille. It integrates easily into existing packaging lines and can handle line speeds up to 98 feet per minute. The adhesive used for Braille dots must be customized to the package substrate, e.g., aluminum, glass, or paperboard. It also must dispense precisely and dry to a non-tacky finish. Dots of clear adhesive do not obscure package graphics and also do not deteriorate over time (Braille adhesive application system featuring e.dot® gun technology, Nordson Corp., Duluth, GA).

A proliferation of inhaled drugs will drive development of new inhaler concepts.

Despite the apparent commercial failure of Exubera inhaled insulin, this drug delivery method has too many advantages not to succeed once healthcare decision makers, caregivers, and consumers become accustomed to the concept. Future designs should benefit from the knowledge gained from pioneers like Exubera and thereby reduce dispenser complexity and cost.

The industry will be reaping benefits from the adoption of sustainable packaging practices.

During the next 30 years, the industry will experience a couple more cycles of intense environmental concern, similar to what is being seen today. As a result, by 2037 packaging will rely less on non-renewable resources and contain more recycled content. In addition, clever designers will find ways to protect products using less packaging material.

Packaging made from biopolymers such as polylactide (PLA) is already on the market. When used to make rigid containers or film, the compostable material offers many of the same attributes as its hydrocarbon-based relatives like polyethylene, polypropylene, or polystyrene. PLA also may provide energy savings since it typically seals at a lower temperature than polyethylene. Although it's typically derived from corn, it may be possible to replace corn with a nonfood crop or agricultural waste like bagasse (from sugar cane).

Perhaps more likely is the production of polymers like linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) from renewable resources. A facility being built in Brazil will use sugar-cane-derived ethanol to make LLDPE that is molecularly equivalent to the LLDPE derived from hydrocarbon-based feedstock (Braskem, Sao Paulo, Brazil).

Recycled content also will assume a growing role in pharmaceutical packaging, particularly for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and film. Major brand owners like Coca-Cola Co. (Atlanta, GA) have made increasing recycled content a corporate priority and are working to boost recycling rates. Today, a number of recycling processes produce food-grade resin from recycled containers. Increasing recycled content means less energy is needed to produce new containers. This holds true not only for PET, but also for most other materials including aluminum, steel, and glass.

Pharmaceutical packaging also will see action in source reduction, or lightweighting. This material minimization effort is rampant right now in the beverage industry where short skirt caps are proliferating. These designs not only require less material in the cap itself, but also in the neck finish of the bottle. In some cases, the combined savings adds up to a couple of grams of resin per container.

A frustrated baby boomer will invent a child-resistant cap that keeps toddlers out, yet allows adults easy access.

There was a time when the credo of the boomer generation was "Don't trust anyone over 30." Now long past 30, today's boomers still have an attitude about age. They're going to ignore it as long as possible. However, as boomers push 50 or 60 and begin taking more prescription drugs for chronic conditions and dietary to maintain or improve their health, it's only a matter of time before someone comes up with a concept that ends the struggle to open child-resistant containers.

Hallie Forcinio, contributing editor,

Pharmaceutical Technology

Industry experts give their predictions for the next 30 years.