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Filling machine ups the ante in the nutraceutical industry

With aerobics and workout routines in the '80s, healthy lifestyles became a mainstream movement. In the '90s, the nutraceuticals industry jumped on this mainstream bandwagon, and is now a $27.5-billion industry. Ahead of the curve is Natural Alternatives Intl. The company leads the pack in the nutraceutical industry with contract manufacturing and packaging of dietary, vitamin and herbal formulations since '80.

Natural Alternatives distinguishes itself by offering formulation of customized blends of nutraceuticals. Customized formulations of nutritional products can include 15 to 30 raw materials,

Inside the machine, empty capsules drop into a magazine with head and tail together toward the filler. The machine fills eight different capsule sizes for the nutraceutical manufacturer.

and each raw material used meets or exceeds the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) and is in compliance with the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) for food, drugs and cosmetics.

The formulations, after rigorous Quality Control, are then encapsulated or compressed into solid dosage forms. The company has 16 capsule fillers at its 60,000-square-ft San Marcos, CA, plant that form capsules, tablets or caplets. Packaging services include graphic design, bottle filling and labeling. In nearby Vista, CA, a second warehouse performs materials receiving, warehousing, weighing and blending and distribution roles for the company.

High-volume filling
Looking to boost filling rates for capsules, Natural Alternatives bought the Impressa 130 intermittent-motion capsule-filling machine from IMA North America. The obstacles to higher filling rates for the company were weight control and compaction force for the capsules. The company bought the filling machine, specifically, to encapsulate herbal formulations. With these formulations, greater compacting or tamping force is needed to produce a carat, the product inside the capsule.

James Larsen, product manager for Natural Alternatives International, says, "Herbal bulk densities vary greatly and call for high levels of tamping to produce the carat. The Impressa probably produces twice as much compaction force as any machine on the market."

Weight control of the carat is another factor that sold the company on the filling machine, PD is told. Larsen adds, "During a test run at the IMA factory, we ran our most difficult products–sticky formulations–and within an hour, products were running at full speed with the Impressa. And, we added more volume to the capsule, and product weights stayed consistent." Natural Alternatives began using the machine in the Spring of '02.

Single-turret design
The capsule filler incorporates a single-turret design that provides capsule orientation and separation, filling, compression, and insertion in one rotary holder or turret. "The machine offers less moving parts. It's easy to remove parts, clean and set up and align the upper and lower machine segments," says Larsen. Other capsule-filling machines utilize one turret to orientate and separate capsules, while a second turret tamps, transfers and inserts the carat into a capsule.

At Natural Alternatives, the process begins with a conveyor moving unfilled capsules from a hopper to the capsule-filling machine. The machine fills eight different capsules sizes, ranging from 000 to 05. Inside the machine, empty capsules drop into a magazine with head and tail together.

Each magazine includes two rows of capsules–one row of eight and another with seven–that travel to the orienting station. This station registers the capsule tops, and aligns the upper and lower segments of the turret. Then, a vacuum-assisted suction device separates the upper and lower parts of the capsule.

From there, the lower segment of the machine carries the bottom half of the capsule. The internal section of the lower segment contains a shoe plate that holds the dosing disk. In this area, bottom transport blocs close the lower opening of the dosing holes after the bottom capsule is filled. A tamping-pin compresses the powder from the dosing disk and forms a cylindrical carat for insertion. The machine uses a five-up GMP tamping procedure designed to prevent dusting and product loss.

After the cylindrical carat is formed, the lower segment moves inward and a push-pin drops the carat into the bottom capsule. After insertion, the lower segment moves outward again and aligns with the upper machine segment containing the capsule's top half. Once aligned, the top and bottom capsules rejoin.

"On two-turret machines, a disk transfers the carat and drags it to the next station. Eventually, the disk's bottom deteriorates and affects the product's weight," says Larsen. "The Impressa machine never slides. After tamping, the lower segment aligns under the carat and receives it directly into the capsule. There's no chance for weight variation."

Powder is gravity-fed to the powder bowl and from there to the tamping area, upper left. Above, the PLC's touchscreen displays filling data.

After filling, a checkweighing machine inspects the capsules allowing for a plus/minus 2 percent variance. Designated for large-volume production, the filling machine performs production runs of up to 500,000 for Natural Alternatives–with minimal product loss.

Less is more with this capsule-filling machine, PD is informed. Larsen says, "The filler has less movement due to the single-turret design and that results in minimal product loss."

With a growing nutraceutical industry, this flexible and efficient machine fits right in with its healthy glow.

More information is available:

Encapsulator: IMA North America, 800/848-2646. Circle No. 234.

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