Frequent changeover needs drive demand for flexible filling

Daphne Allen

October 12, 2016

4 Min Read
Frequent changeover needs drive demand for flexible filling
The Uniline fills bottles with tablets, desiccants, and cotton and then caps them.

Ken Richardson has been with PCI for 23 years, and he’s seen a lot, he tells PMP News. “The market is going to smaller lot sizes and multi-SKU/multi-country programs,” says Richardson, VP, Global Engineering. “In the old days, we set up one product for multiple shifts. Changeover was absorbed into those shifts. Now, smaller lot sizes and program complexity equate to many more changeovers.”

The new reality of frequent changeover is one of the driving factors behind Richardson’s 2015 installation of a Uniline linear monoblock bottle-filling line from IMA North America for PCI’s Philadelphia site. Richardson also had a Uniline installed at PCI’s Rockford, IL, site in 2016. 

“PCI was looking for flexibility,” explains Darren Meister, VP of Sales for IMA North America (IMA Safe). “The Uniline provides very quick changeover for maximum flexibility.” 

The Uniline performs four functions in one machine: filling bottles with tablets, desiccants, and cotton, and then capping them. It utilizes a “servo-controlled, recipe-driven transport system that automatically adjusts to different bottle sizes,” Meister explains. “The machine automatically adjusts itself for different bottle sizes, with minimal physical adjustments for other parts. It’s a very simple changeover that you can perform through the machine’s HMI screen (basically push button changeover).” The system can handle bottles ranging from 30 cc to 900 cc, in any shape, at speeds up to 150 bottles per minute.

Richardson was pleased with the “reduced number of format parts, and tooling that is less expensive than traditional systems,” he says. “It’s more economical for customers.”

The Philadelphia line is also much shorter than traditional bottle filling lines. “In the old days, to fill and cap bottles, you’d have 50 feet of conveyance and equipment,” Richardson says. “The Uniline takes an empty bottle and fills and caps it, all in 20 feet. 

“People used to believe in putting bottles in a queue, using equipment such as accumulation tables,” he continues. “Now, everything is in one-piece flow—one bottle in, one bottle out. There’s no accumulation—and it’s very efficient.”

Such compactness also benefits changeover. “It’s all about changeover—the reduction means less area to clean,” he says. “The Uniline is really designed for ease of changeover and ease of cleaning. Being a contract packager, we really need to be efficient at cleaning and changeover. The balcony allows any product that escapes to fall through to one area to be cleaned. There are no crevices.”

The Uniline utilizes IMA’s SwiftPharm electronic tablet counter, also using minimal format parts. “Its trays can accommodate different products in size and shape,” Richardson says.

“We had used a vibratory feeder before in Rockford on a bottling line, and we had replaced another company’s feeders with IMA’s. It’s a single-head feeder that is able to increase line-speed filling times by five times.”

Meister says that the SwiftPharm utilizes electrostatic field sensing (EFS) technology for counting. “The unit establishes a signature of a good product and determines that each product matches that signature.” he says. “It was a major point for PCI—higher quality.

“We do a learn scan, which takes a few minutes. This captures the signature of the free-falling product and ensures that every product for filling is identical to the signature,” Meister says. Should any noncompliant product make its way into a bottle, the “filled bottles are tracked and rejected.” There’s positive control of all bottles throughout handling, he adds.

The Uniline features torque feedback in its capping system. “It’s a really cool, quick changeover feature,” Richardson says. “It’s part of the system’s electronic changeover, which is format recipe driven. You call up a recipe on the machine’s HMI, and the machine changes over according to bottle size and height.” 

Meister says the Uniline is designed to provide “user-friendly changeover procedures [for different bottle formats] that unskilled operators can walk through in about 30 minutes.”

IMA set up the bottle recipes for changeover with PCI prior to the factory acceptance test. “PCI can also add recipes as they add new products,” Meister adds.


 PCI will add serialization to the Philadelphia line as it continues to invest in serialization capacity.

IMA did the full line integration at its Leominster, MA full-service plant and then came to Philadelphia to install it.

“Our approach was to have IMA deliver a full line,” says Richardson. “Other equipment was drop shipped to IMA. That way you don’t have anyone arguing about who was responsible—IMA was. IMA did two other lines like that for me—it’s a successful business model.”

The line features two labelers from IMA and have print-and-apply capability for pressure-sensitive labels utilizing laser marking and ink-based printing. “They can code, inspect, and apply,” he says. “Part of the requirement for IMA was to implement both types of printing with no mechanical changeover.” Richardson also runs the global serialization program for PCI and plans to eventually add serialization to the new line in the coming months as PCI continues to invest considerably in serialization capacity across its network of sites, well in advance of the DSCSA implementation in late 2017. “PCI bought the Uniline serialization capable,” he says. When ready, “the Uniline has bottom coding capability.” 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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