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Blister-packing upgrade supports supplements

Lauren R. Hartman

January 29, 2014

12 Min Read
Blister-packing upgrade supports supplements

Pharmavite LLC, maker of the Nature's Resource brand of dietary herbal supplements, has made a $2-million equipment investment at its facility in Valencia, CA, in a sophisticated new blister-packing line for herbal supplements, vitamins, dietary products and science-based supplements designed to promote health. The line basically starts with individual capsules or tablets and ends with palletized loads that are ready to distribute across the country.

Established in 1971, the Northridge, CA, company offers a wide range of herbal supplements and standardized herbal extracts, including its popular Nature's Resource and Nature Made® brands (see PD, May, '03, p. 46) and a new vitamin line designed exclusively for women called Olaye Vitamins, the trademark for which Pharmavite is licensing from Procter & Gamble (see PD, Aug., '03, p.4). All are packaged in compliance with U.S. Pharmacopeia's Good Manufacturing Practices.

Nature Made is a top-selling, broadline brand of vitamins and minerals in food, drug and mass-merchandise retail channels. The successful manufacturer produces this and assorted herbal- and vitamin-based dietary supplements, including about 28 stockkeeping units that it blister-packs at the Valencia plant, roughly 20 miles away from Northridge. To handle the surge in supplement demand, Pharmavite in February/March installed the new blister-packaging/thermoforming line, outfitted with Bosch Packaging Technology's TLT 1400 thermoformer and blister-transfer system and a Bosch PUG-Z counter/stacker. These systems are linked to a Bosch CUT 120 cartoner. Both the thermoformer and the cartoner are IPC-controlled and servo-driven. The line also includes a Pester Pac Automation fifth-panel carton inverter and a PEWO-Pac 250 compact stretch bander, both of which were acquired through and integrated by Bosch, and a new Series 12 top-loading case packer and robotic palletizer, both from Brenton Eng.

Measuring approximately 100 ft long, the new blister-packing line, one of more than 15 lines at the plant, produces blisters in sizes from 40 x 105 mm (1.57 x 4.13 in.) at 80/min up to 75 x 127 mm (2.93 x 5 in.) at speeds to 150/min. Depending on the product and blister configurations as well as the packaging substrate, Pharmavite says the line can run at speeds averaging 50 to 75 cartons/min.

Packing in-house saves 10 to 20 percent
Well thought out and planned for within a two-year timeframe, the blister-packing line was actually a new area for Pharmavite, notes Gordon Sprague, regional sales manager for Bosch Packaging Technology. "Prior to installing this line, they had outsourced their blister-packaging needs," he says. Pharmavite's facility maintenance manager, Robert Brady, says the company was glad that it brought its blister-packing function in-house. "It seemed economically favorable upfront, and it turned out that it has really allowed us to control costs," he says. "Depending on the SKU, we're saving anywhere from ten to twenty percent."

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Already experienced with Bosch equipment, Pharmavite added Bosch GKF 2000 encapsulators to its operation in Valencia a few years ago and was pleased with the results. The machines perform so well, Brady says, that Pharmavite looked again to Bosch for blister-packing machinery.

At the heart of the new line is the TLT 1400, which provides easy changeover, versatility and flexibility for the various package configurations. Designed to deliver top production rates of 400 blisters/min, the system was chosen because it's so suitable for Pharmavite's needs. Both the TLT 1400 machine and the CUT 120 S cartoner were built in Germany.

With touchscreen-controlled servo drives, an IPC (industrial personal computer) process control and tool-less changeovers, the medium-range TLT 1400 machine impressed Pharmavite's team of engineers. Bosch says changeover time on this system has been reduced by half, to 25 minutes, which will come in handy for Pharmavite, as Brady indicates the entire line can be changed over as often as twice a week, depending on blister size and blister stock, leaflet, sealing-web graphics and carton configuration.

"If we can, we run campaigns," he says. "But with twenty-eight different SKUs, we have to serve a lot of different customers, so changeovers are critical and have to be done at frequent intervals. That's why we chose this equipment. It gives us more future capacity, it's more flexible than the larger, higher-speed machines we looked at, and changeover times are quicker. The versatility of the changeparts is another reason we chose the Bosch machines. We can mix and match the tools to produce blisters that will work for us."

Forming/filling/sealing
Overall line logic is provided by an Allen-Bradley programmable logic control system. Packaging begins in the positive-airflow packaging room as individual capsules or tablets are loaded by line operators into the 40-L (10.5-gal) hopper that connects to a linear feeder or brush-box feeder. The feeders can be changed depending upon what product shape and base web material will be running through the machine. Meanwhile, the base web of blister film unwinds from a roll mounted at the head of the TLT 1400 machine and moves continuously to the forming station. If forming polyvinyl chloride blisters, after the base web of PVC film moves in an S-shape through a set of rollers, it's preheated twice and then is heated during the forming of the blisters. The blisters are formed one-up, using compressed air. Should Pharmavite require deeper cavities in the blisters, a plug assist can also be used.

Brady says the machine is capable of forming blisters two at a time, but the Pharmavite package formats are wider than pharmaceutical blister-packs. "Nutritional supplement tablets and capsules tend to be larger than pharmaceuticals, so the packs are wider and longer," he says.

If producing all-aluminum foil blisters, the machine can be programmed to cold-form the blister cavities using a plug assist and pressure exerted on the web. A Lock MetalCheck 9 pharmaceutical-style metal detector is equipped at the machine's infeed to check for any metal contaminants. "We one-hundred-percent inspect for metal on the line, to ensure a contaminant-free product," says Brady.

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Cartons, top photo, are inverted if they have a fifth panel and then head to a bander, above, that groups them in threes before case packing.

Depending on the application, Pharmavite uses base webs of clear PVC or Aclar-laminated PVC, both from Klöckner Pentaplast, or unsupported aluminum foil from Hueck Foils, in which case the TLT 1400 blister system operates in cold-form mode. The sealing webs, also from Hueck, can be a child-resistant foil/paper backing material, or an unsupported all-foil backing material.

The base web is fed in continuous motion through the machine as tablets or capsules are deposited into the cavities of the just-formed blisters. Then, the filled web advances to the sealing station. Within a foot, the base web is sealed.

Depending on the product, the tablets or capsules are packed 6 to 20 per blister, 2 to 10 blisters per carton. Blister configuration size, perforation and package punch tools vary for all of the products.

The foil-containing lidstock unwinds next from a second roll and is heat-sealed to the base web. Sealing the blisters from rollstock fed in continuous motion provides a highly consistent seal, according to Sprague.

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Cases of the cartons will leave the heavy-duty case packer and reach a corner-wrap bar-code labeler that applies codes and ID.

Just prior to sealing, a brush contacts the base web to remove any external powders that can collect before the web of filled cavities passes a color optical-inspection station. The machine is equipped to print the sealing web using a CSAT laser printer from Germany that allows Pharmavite to change product descriptions and graphics on the backing web for different products without having to change the webstock. Depending on product requirements, the laser printer applies registered graphics, product and brand information, usage instructions, a lot number, an expiration date, production codes, and mandatory warning statements, if necessary. They can download information from a laptop computer into the printer system to print online.

"The cartoner was selected because it also meets our needs," Brady adds. "And it works well with the thermoformer."

Counting, stacking, cartoning
The continuous web of filled, sealed blisters is next perforated to form individual tablet sections before the web is die-cut into individual, easy-to-dispense-from packs. An embosser on the machine also encodes the sealed packs with a lot number and expiration date before the blisters leave the machine and convey to the PUG-Z stacker to be counted, recounted and stacked in groups of up to 10 blisters.

The stacker is programmed to count the blister-packs and deposit the blisters into the counted stacks. The stacks are then loaded into the chain-operated product buckets of the intermittent-motion CUT 120 cartoner. The modular CUT cartoner is also IPC-controlled, and accepts carton sizes from 20 x 15 x 50 mm (0.787 x 0.59 x 1.9 in.). Pharmavite's system is equipped with a color touchscreen, a Nordson 3500V adhesive applicator, an integral embossing coder and a leaflet folder. The system stores carton size changes, size data and machine parameters in its 999-program product data memory, which can be immediately accessed at the press of a button.

Sensors, which punctuate the entire line, include those on the cartoner that check for the correct amount of blisters per stack. If the stack holds the correct amount of blisters, the cartoner has a GUK leaflet folder pull a leaflet in front of the blisters and begin to fold and align the leaflet around the stack of blisters in a C-shape.

Carton blanks are simultaneously pulled by suction cups from a magazine and are squared up as a stack of blisters is removed from the buckets and, with the leaflet, is placed by a pusher into the erected carton being carried through the machine in a carton chain that gently handles them, minimizing scrapes and scuffs. Pharmavite gets its SBS folding cartons from both Innovative Packaging and Bert-Co. A leaflet assist guides insertion by slightly compressing the stack so that nothing unravels.

Next, the carton flaps are glued on the Nordson unit and are folded and compressed. The finished, filled cartons leave the CUT system and convey to the Pester Pac fifth-panel inverter, which orients their hang-tab fifth panels so they can be effectively banded in groups of three by the Pester stretch bander.

The two Pester machines were also selected for their versatility and high performance. If a blister-pack carton has no fifth panel, the cartons convey through the machine, unobstructed, to the stretch-band applicator. The bander then groups the cartons in threes and applies a 3-in.-W polypropylene stretch band from Action Point. Banding the cartons facilitates handling and stocking at the retail end, Brady adds, because the bands can be quickly removed and the cartons are ready to stock. Once secured, the three-packs leave the bander to be case-packed.

The 200#-test, single-wall corrugated cases, from All Trade Container, are labeled with product and SKU information by a New Jersey Machine Final Touch Model 400 corner-wrap label applicator before being palletized. The Brenton palletizer features a Fanuc M-420iA four-axis, CNC robotic system that allows the firm to keep labor to a minimum and operate the line with only a few people who oversee things from start to finish.

The Series 12 case packer also was selected for its flexibility, economies, ruggedness and short leadtimes. Brenton says the machine is especially suitable for pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications.

Says Brady: "We chose these machines from Brenton because we were familiar with them, they do a nice job, and we knew the palletizer was a good choice, too."

With a maximum load capacity of 40 kg (88.1 lb) and repeatability of ?0.5 mm (0.019685 in.), the servo-driven, M420iA-equipped palletizer layers cases four- to six-high on pallets before one of the only manual tasks is performed: stretch wrapping.

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Palletizing takes place on a sophisticated servo system with a four-axis CNC robot, above, that layers cases four- to six-high.

Brady estimates that Pharmavite will see a return on its equipment investment within three years. "Some of the nuances of setup take some time, but the line is pretty easy to operate and change over," he explains. "We're very impressed with the machines. We can follow a recipe or setup instructions right on the touchscreens, and we're ready to go. The line has a lot of efficiencies, it's fairly easy to change over, and it requires minimum labor to operate."

Currently running two eight-hour shifts a day, five days a week, the new blister line is well equipped to meet the needs of Pharmavite's customers and demand for its products, Brady says. Anticipating that the new Olay vitamins series will become quite popular, the company may add another shift to the line, he concludes.

More information is available:

Blister machine, stacker/counter/transfer system, cartoner, laser printer, leaflet folder, controls, machine integration: Bosch Packaging Technology Div., Pharmaceutical, Robert Bosch GmbH, 763/424-4700. Circle No. 240.

Detection system: Lock Inspection Systems, 978/343-3716. Circle No. 241.

Adhesive applicator: Nordson Corp.,440/985-4226. Circle No. 242.

Fifth-panel inverter, stretch bander: Pester-USA, 201/327-7009. Circle No. 243.

Case packer, robotic palletizer: Brenton Eng. Co., 320/852-7705. Circle No. 244.

Robot: Fanuc Robotics North America, 800/477-6268. Circle No. 245.

Basestocks: Klöckner Pentaplast of America, 540/832-3600. Circle No. 246.

Sealing webstocks: Hueck Foils, 732/974-4100. Circle No. 247.

Line logic: Allen-Bradley Co., 440/646-3276. Circle No. 248.

Stretch bands: Action Point Packaging, 909/598-7844. Circle No. 249.

Labeler: New Jersey Machine, 603/448-0300. Circle No. 250.

Folding cartons: Innovative Folding Carton Co., 908/757-6000. Circle No. 251.

Folding cartons: Bert-Co Packaging, 800/325-6855. Circle No. 252.

Cases: All Trade Container Corp., 562/806-2299. Circle No. 253.

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