The proliferation of high-value pharmaceuticals, biotech products, and controlled substances that require zero-tolerance fill accuracy make it a must for healthcare contract packager Sharp Packaging Solutions to install and use machinery that will accommodate such products made by its customers.
Specifically, the company is standardizing on tablet counting/filling and labeling equipment from NJM Packaging.
Sharp Packaging Solutions provides commercial and clinical trial services for prescription and over-the counter pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and animal health products. The company operates facilities across the U.S. and Europe.
Victor Virginio, Director of Engineering, Global Innovation and Technology at Sharp Packaging Solutions, says that the company’s Allentown, P.A. facility has installed two NJM Cremer CFS-622 tablet counters/fillers, and two NJM Model 326 AUTOCOLT IV labeling units. Plans call for adding another tablet counter and labeler at the facility early next year.
“There were two main reasons why we standardized on these new machines,” Virginio explains. “Specifically on the Cremer models, we needed to replace an older style of filling technology. Beyond that, we were getting a lot of requests from our customers for zero-tolerance fill counts. The older technology fillers we have run for years cannot guarantee zero tolerance with regard to errors. The older slat fillers require specific tooling and need an operator to stand in front of them to ensure that there’s a tablet in every cavity of the slat.”
Sharp produces solid-dose quantities ranging from five to 1,000 tablets/bottle, in bottle sizes from 30 cc to 500 cc. Bottle shapes most often are cylindrical rounds, squares, and oblongs, but the contract packager can accommodate any shape the customer prefers. Bottle size changes represent the primary reason for line changeovers, which can be done in as little as 20 min; longer for an entire line.
At this point, Sharp does not fill liquids, but does accept liquid-filled containers and handles everything from labeling through palletization.
Virginio says Sharp will continue to use some slat fillers, given that customers paid for tooling for their specific products.
The 270,000-square-foot Allentown plant includes three buildings. Its main building contains 35 packaging suites, each of which can be a line or room. Each room or line typically is used for one product at a time. Lines are typically changed over every other day.
“We have about three or four rooms dedicated to the same unique product because they use custom machines, so we don’t run anybody else’s product in those rooms,” says Virginio.
Another building houses six packaging rooms that produce sachets and pouches.
“It provides us with more room in the main building, but also establishes an area of expertise under one roof,” he says. Virginio explains that a third building is under construction and is expected to be open early next year, equipped with 24 packaging suites, concentrating on biotech products.
“Business has been very good to us,” he states.
A focus on filling
The Cremer fillers can accommodate up to four modules, depending on the required output. The more modules, the greater the output.
“We can buy up to four modules in the base frame that we selected,” says Virginio. “But we only run three modules. That’s where we top out at 150 bottles a minute. There is no point in running higher than that if the rest of the line cannot support the speed.”
Sharp does its own integration of controls on its packaging machinery, occasionally using outside integrators. The decision is sometimes dictated by the customer’s User Requirement Specifications. The Cremer machines employ proprietary Cremer PC base controls.
Sharp’s customers specify bottle, closure, label materials, and suppliers. Most often, says Virginio, bottles are high-density polyethylene. The two Cremer lines include one straight line and one u-shaped line. Line shape depends on space constraints or air handling issues within the specific packaging suite.
The two Cremer lines begin with bottles conveying through an unscrambler. Next, bottles are cleaned by ionized air before moving to the filler. The Cremer indexes three bottles at a time and fills three bottles per cycle.
Filled and closed bottles then proceed through labeling, metal detection, desiccant insertion, capping, induction-sealing, sidesert/topsert application, cartoning, shrink-wrapping, palletizing, and stretch—all dependent upon the specific customer’s needs. product.
The 326 AUTOCOLT labelers are used on the same lines as the Cremer counter/fillers. The machines label square, rectangular, or round bottles and can apply wraparound or three-panel labels as well as sideserts and topserts. “We married them to specifically the Cremer fillers,” Virginio says. “And we have four other NJM labelers that we will eventually be relocating to our new facility early next year.”
The lines typically run on three daily shifts, six days a week, with pallet-load quantities shipped either to the customer’s distribution center or warehouse.
Benefits and opportunities
So, why standardize on the NJM equipment, and in particular the Cremer tablet counters/fillers?
“We decided two years ago when we purchased the first one—after we did a search of other filler technologies—that the Cremer machine’s accuracy was critical in our decision," said Virginio. "Our short-count complaints have gone down dramatically and so, as the opportunity for more bottling lines comes up, we’re going to convert them and standardize on the Cremer technology.”
As for the AUTOCOLT labelers, Virginio says, “We also standardized on the NJM for the ease of maintenance and reliability. They can also apply a label and/or sidesert to a round bottle, which is challenging because the sidesert has to adhere to the same place on each bottle. The inline AUTCOLT labelers require little floorspace compared with rotary machines, and that is significant.”
Asked about financial return on investment on the NJM equipment, Virginio explains, “labor savings helped us justify the equipment. We had an operator that used to stand in front of the slat filler that is no longer needed. Plus, the fill accuracy on the Cremer machines is so good that we decided that the checkweigher was no longer required.”
Regarding Overall Equipment Effectiveness, or OEE, Virginio notes that as a contract packager, true measurement of is difficult to determine given the frequency of line changeovers.
Quick changeovers represent a key benefit that the Cremer machines provide compared to the slat fillers. Instead of requiring a combination of slats that have to be configured for a particular SKU, the Cremer handles it electronically via a software program.
The ultimate benefit, Virginio says, “is more a matter of Sharp gaining new business in that clients are coming to us because we have this improved technology. We are not giving away product as much and we are not short-counting product, which helps prevent potential recalls. It’s hard to put a dollar value on some of these benefits, so we base ROI on the business that we are now able to court.”
Virginio estimates that by this time next year, the company will be running three Cremer bottling lines. “The strategy is to add more capacity that requires a zero-tolerance count fill. That’s where we recommend they run their product on this equipment. We are very happy with all the NJM equipment.”