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Joint pain supplements align and be counted

The surge in demand from an aging population for Nutramax Laboratories' Cosamin® DS (for humans) and Cosequin® DS (for veterinary use) high-end nutritional supplements to alleviate joint pain and arthritis symptoms has made for a booming business at the 10-year-old, Edgewood, MD-based firm. Producer of the popular combination of glucosamine hydrochloride, chondroitin sulfate and manganese ascorbate, for which it holds patents, Nutramax has enjoyed much success marketing the over-the-counter tablets and capsules that demonstrate the ability to inhibit the breakdown of cartilage in joints and keep joints flexible.

Popular with joint-pain and arthritis sufferers, athletes, sports enthusiasts and others, as well as their canine counterparts, the two glucosamine/ chondroitin products currently constitute more than 50 percent of production running on a new bottling/capping/labeling line that the company installed in June.

When orders of Cosamin DS doubled after the product received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in '00, it was soon carried by top mass-merchandisers and clubstores. Nutramax had to find a way to double both production and its packaging throughput.

So pleased with a bottling line it installed in '98 to alleviate its initial growing pains, Nutramax again looked to DT Packaging Systems to outfit Line 2. The earlier line included a DT Kalish Monocount system and an electronic counter from DT Swiftpack, both from DT Packaging Systems (see PD, June, '98, p. 27).

Equipped to bottle the products in larger containers including 210-, 230- and 250-count sizes, the second line became a necessity this year when demand really exploded, says director of operations Pete Patras. "We didn't look for quotes from anyone else. DT has been timely in its response to all of our needs. They have the integration capability to create a whole [bottling] line."

Outpaces Line 1
Nutramax bought the machinery third-party, in a style DT calls "Integra Key," as opposed to the turnkey style. After DT assembled, tested and operated the entire line at its own facilities in Leominster, MA, it shipped and installed the equipment at Nutramax's facility in Edgewood.

Capped bottles travel through an inspection station that checks for cap presence and proper closure application.   After filling, cotton insertion and metal inspection, the bottles convey to the rotary four-head capper, which applies foil-lined caps.

The new line includes a DT Lakso RF 450 Reformer system, a slat counter/filler that has a top speed rating of 180 bottles/min. The 450 basically counts the tablets into bottle-count quantities and separates the counts for dispensing into the individual bottles moving along the line. Operating at line speeds of 100 bottles/min on a 100-count fill, the line outpaces the four-year-old Line 1, which is still in service for the smaller bottles of Cosamin DS and Cosequin DS, in 72-, 90- and 180-count sizes.

DT also integrated the new line, which features a Lakso 52 cottoner, "S" module conveyors and Model 65 Pharmaveyorw sanitary-style conveyors, a power panel, a rotary accumulation table and a Lakso Checkpoint QA cap-inspection system, all provided through DT Packaging Systems.

In addition, the line has a Labelstar1 straightline pressure-sensitive labeler and a Roadrunner M Series 4H rotary four-head capper, both from Capmatic, a Pillar induction cap sealer, a tamper-evident neckband applicator with shrink tunnel from PDC Intl., and from Palace Packaging Machines, an unscrambler, a desiccant inserter and a bulk tablet elevator.

Pharmaceutical environment
More evidence of the company's growth and of its utmost attention to producing a top-quality product, the new line resides in a new, larger, 72,500-sq-ft facility incorporating a Class 100,000 cleanroom. "The nutritional supplement business has minimal regulations compared to the pharmaceuticals business," Patras explains. "But we

'S' module conveyors ease the supplement containers' transition from one straightline conveyor to another, between the slat-counting station and the cottoning station. As they approach the cottoner, the bottles begin to feed in a straight line, without guide kinks or side transfers.

implement good manufacturing practices here that are similar to those designed for pharmaceutical manufacturers. Fortunately for us, many of our employees have come to us from pharmaceutical companies so they are used to that environment."

Space at the plant continues to be at somewhat of a premium, despite the expansion, Patras tells PD, however, the constraints helped determine the equipment Nutramax chose for the new line. "We have limits on floorspace," he says. "As it is, we've added four feet to the packaging area for the new line and are working on expanding the manufacturing area."

As now situated, Line 2 is operated by five people for all functions down to packoff. Opaque-white high-density polyethylene bottles, molded by Setco and Titan, are provided through Andler Packaging in bulk. Threaded white polypropylene closures with foil induction liners from Phoenix Closures are also acquired through Andler.

Tablet/capsule detection
After the products are blended and capsuled or made into tablets, they're transported to the packaging line in bulk. Bottling begins as a product handler pours the empty HDPE bottles, 500 at a time, into a bulk supply hopper that leads to the Palace unscrambler. The unscrambler orients, inverts and cleans the bottles using an ionized air "rinse" to remove any dust, residue or statically charged particles before the bottles convey to a DT Lakso QA station downed-bottle detector that checks for tipped bottles and proper orientation. Next, a Palace desiccant inserter deposits a desiccant (supplied Süd-Chemie) into each container as the bottles glide onto an "S" module conveyor. Desiccant insertion is performed with empty bottles to prolong freshness of the tablets or capsules even after the bottle is opened, PD is told. This discourages consumers from throwing out the desiccant too soon, Patras says. With desiccants in place, the bottles head to the RF 450 Reformer tablet counter/bottle filler.

Meanwhile, the tablets or capsules are dispensed from bulk drums into the hopper of a Palace bulk tablet/capsule elevator that feeds a large, vibratory reservoir tray atop the RF 450 Reformer's filler, which has a 4-cu-ft capacity. The tablets quickly meter into a slat hopper leading to the cavities within the RF 450 Reformer's 72 broom-handle-shaped, one-piece slats with product, under the guidance of a programmable logic controller (in this case, an SLC 504 from Allen-Bradley) with settings for input, output scan time, precount and speed setback. Bottles approach the filler and a feedscrew index device gently positions them beneath the filling chutes, as the large tablets singulate through the system's cavities.

A count of tablets or capsules needed to fill the particular bottle capacity are segregated, counted and loaded into the bottles. Operators can view count and bottling status, can input recipes for bottle count storage and can determine any changes in setup and operation on the system's color touchscreen mounted on the other side of the conveyor.

Attached to the counter is an electronic Micro-Scan III empty-cavity detector that uses infrared LED light to check for any empty cavities and thus, prevent bottle counts from coming up short. On direction from the control, light from the IR source is beamed through a hole in the bottom of a mating slat. If a tablet is present, the IR light is blocked, so no signal is emitted to the receiver head.

If a cavity is empty however, IR light passes through, is picked up by the receiver head and is recorded by the Micro-Scan control. The unit will then generate a signal to the bottle-rejection system, indicating that no tablet is present, and will signal the system to reject the bottle, which then exits onto a second conveyor.

Cottoning, sealing, labeling

Bottles being filled on Line 2 receive product from one-piece mating slats. Operators can view count, bottling status and other functions on an overhead color touchscreen.

The "S" module conveyors ease the bottles into a transition from one conveyor leading from the filler/counter to another conveyor that feeds them into the Lakso 52 cottoner in a straight line, without conveyor guide kinks or side transfers. To prevent the cotton from "wisping," instead of tearing the cotton to fit, the Model 52 cuts the cotton with mechanical shears and folds each piece into a U shape before inserting it, rounded-side-up, into a bottle.

Exiting the cottoner, the filled bottles then encounter a Boekels metal detector that checks them for metal contamination just before they head to the Capmatic M4H rotary four-head capper.

The foil-lined caps are oriented and placed on each bottle, and are torqued to the required tightness, before the sealed, capped bottles pass beneath the Lakso cap-inspection station from DT Packaging that checks for cap presence, skewed caps and other placement criteria.

The capped bottles are then induction-sealed by the Pillar 2-kw Unifoiler system that transfers each cap's inner foil liner from the cap to the bottle mouth, fusing it sealed. The PDC Model 50M Shrinkseal neckbander applies a tamper-evident clear vinyl or polyethylene terephthalate glycol neckband from Andler printed with Nutramax brand details and the bottles phase through the applicator's KRC 12-36-54 heat tunnel for shrinking.

The neckbands then cool as the containers reach a DT Lakso 75 accumulation table and proceed to the Capmatic Labelstar 1 stepper-motor-driven in-line pressure-sensitive labeler with LS 130 labeling head. The labeler also features a bar-code and label presence detector and a reject station. Next, a lot number and expiration date are imprinted on each of the preprinted paper labels (supplied by Pharmalabel), just prior to label application by a Markem SmartDate 2I thermal-transfer coder.

Traveling on the powered Pharmaveyor flat-top chain conveyors in place throughout the line, the finished bottles exit onto a rotary packoff table a short distance away, before they are manually cartoned, if required, and case-packed. As an extra measure of quality control, Patras says, an operator checks every bottle one last time before packoff to ensure precise label positioning, neckband presence, and legibility of the imprinted lot number and expiration date. "We like to physically inspect every bottle that comes off the line," he tells PD. "We couldn't do that if we cartoned and case-packed them automatically. It's a bit more expensive, but it's too important to our end users."

Healthy future
With its sales volume dramatically increasing, Patras says Nutramax is optimistic about the future and its packaging operation. He finds a lot to like about the new bottling line. Since going onstream with Line 2 for the larger bottle sizes of Cosemin DS and Cosequin DS, throughput has really improved, and rejects are low, he says, though he points out that rejects were never a major issue, and the company shows no signs of slowing down.

More information is available:

Bottle counter/filler, cottoner, conveyors, accumulation, tablet detection, QA bottle-down detector, cap inspection station, line integration: DT Packaging Systems, DT Industries, 978/537-8534. Circle No. 203.

Induction sealer: Pillar Technologies, 262/367-3060. Circle No. 204.

Desiccant inserter, tablet elevator, unscrambler/orienter: Palace Packaging Machines, 610/873-7252. Circle No. 205.

Capper, labeler: Capmatic Ltd., 514/322-0062. Circle No. 206.

Neckbander, tunnel: PDC Intl. Corp., 203/853-1516. Circle No. 207.

Bottles: Setco, Inc., 714/777-5200. Circle No. 208.

Bottles: Titan Plastics, Inc., 201/935-7700. Circle No. 209.

Bottle, neckband distributor: Andler Packaging Group, 800/333-1113. Circle No. 210.

Caps: Phoenix Closures, Inc., 630/420-4750. Circle No. 211.

Metal detector: International Automation/Boekels, 201/760-9960. Circle No. 212.

Desiccants: Süd-Chemie Performance Packaging Inc., 800/989-3374. Circle No. 213.

Labels: Pharmalabel, 888/855-7142. Circle No. 214.

Controls: Allen-Bradley Co., 414/382-2000. Circle No. 215.

Coder: Markem Corp., 603/352-1130. Circle No. 216.

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