Pharma Manufacturer Fully Automates Line to Keep Pace with Liquid Filling

Bavarian firm Bionorica boosts performance by implementing new machines around its high-speed filling machine, automating liquid production from depalletizing, unpacking, and bottle inspections to cartoning.

Bionorica produces effective herbal medicines including Bavaria’s best-selling cold remedy, Sinupret. The owner-run German company has grown from being a one-man firm to a global player employing some 1700 people and operating in more than 40 countries worldwide with headquarters located in Neumarkt, Bavaria.

At Bionorica’s Neumarkt site, non-sterile liquids are filled and packed in glass bottles on two liquid lines for therapeutic nose, throat, and lung applications. To improve the overall equipment effectiveness of its liquid production, Bionorica decided to automate various steps which were previously executed manually. In addition to depalletizing and unpacking of “safe packs”—foil-sealed packs providing maximum protection for several dozen glass bottles—Bionorica fully automated feeding and inspection of the bottles on one of their two liquid lines initially.

The goal was for all modules on the packaging line to deliver the same high level of performance. Although the filling machine theoretically has a maximum output of approximately 200 bottles/min, this speed had never been reached in practice because the machine’s capacity had not been met by the performance of the other modules, notably the cartoner. For this reason, Bionorica opted to replace every module on the line apart from the filling machine.

Four of the modules on the new packaging line are from the Karlsruhe-based Romaco Group, which develops, manufactures, and distributes GMP-compliant, high-tech machines for the pharmaceutical industry. “Romaco has a broad, premium-quality product portfolio, which is a great advantage when implementing complex plants like ours, because it means we can source several machines from just one supplier,” explains Howard Fick of Bionorica’s Engineering department. “They also convinced us with good value for [the] money, solutions that are individually tailored to our needs, and prompt, efficient support.”

  • In the first section of the fully automatic liquid line, glass bottles delivered in safe packs are automatically depalletized and unpacked with the help of a Romaco Macofar MED003 unpacking system.

  • Bottles are then passed to an inspection unit, featuring a new technology developed jointly by Romaco and Bionorica for detecting and removing faulty bottles.

  • In the next step, the bottles are fed via a rotary table to the filling machine, where they are filled with product, fitted with a screw cap, and labeled.

  • A Romaco Promatic PC4250 continuous motion cartoner subsequently packs the bottles into cartons together with a leaflet.

  • Finally, they are serialized with a 2D code and then packed into cases, sealed and serialized again by a case packer-palletizer before being automatically loaded onto pallets at the end of the line.

Servo motors in the unpacking machine simplify format changes

Once the safe packs have been depalletized, the Romaco Macofar MED003 unpacking machine (also referred to by the company as a depacking machine) cuts open the thermo-shrink plastic packaging material with three heated, moving blades. After unpacking the vials, they are collected on a buffer, then separated on a star wheel. After separation they pass the Spectra inspection unit and are then fed into the filling machine. The unpacking system has a separate servo motor for every single movement, so that the unpacking parameters can be individually programmed for any safe pack type and stored according to the format. This reduces the format change time—Bionorica uses 30, 50, and 100 mL bottle sizes—because fewer format parts have to be replaced.

Customized bottle inspection prevents damage to the filling machine

To prevent damage to the filling machine due to faulty bottles, Bionorica worked with Romaco to develop a simple, space-saving solution for monitoring empty bottles. This inspection unit, named Spectra, is necessary because Bionorica uses blow-molded glass bottles as primary packaging for its medicines.

About 1 or 2% of these containers are outside the tolerance range—for example, they are not exactly vertical, or the bottom is too thick. In the past, such bottles regularly damaged the filling machine, resulting in lengthy stoppages. “An inspection unit capable of meeting our requirements, with damage avoidance as its sole purpose, didn’t yet exist, which is why we took the decision to collaborate with Romaco and design a new solution,” Fick reports. “Spectra is not only an exact-fit answer to our needs; it was also much cheaper than any of the standard products on offer in the market, which in any case were way too complex for our situation.”

Cartoner with two speed steps

The Romaco Promatic PC4250 was integrated into Bionorica’s liquid line as a cartoning module meant to keep pace with the filling machine. The PC4250 is designed to have a very short ramp-up phase, offer easier handling, and straightforward maintenance. The system completes toolless format changes in under 30 minutes and stack heights can be modified in less than 10, according to the company.

Each of the cartoner’s drives—for instance, the erection unit or the various closing groups for the infeed conveyor—has its own torque limiter on the Promatic PC4250. This is important for bottle lines where individual components are subjected to very heavy loads.

One of Bionorica’s specific needs was that the cartoner have the ability to operate at two different speeds. In normal operation, the packaging line achieves around 200 bottles/min, which is consistent with the performance limit of the filling machine. However, if the cartoner stands still briefly because a downstream machine has come to a halt, bottles collect in front of it on an accumulation table. Now, bottles are detected by the sensors installed in the cartoner and the speed temporarily increases to 240 cartons/min, to enable the backlog to be cleared. As a result, the filling machine upstream from the cartoner can continue operating and there is no loss of performance on the line as a whole.

Complete liquid production achieved with Romaco technologies

The new liquid line has been up and running at Bionorica in the final configuration since the end of 2018. Bionorica predicts roughly 20% higher productivity compared to the old line as soon as all the settings are optimized. The company’s second liquid line is about to be upgraded in the same way–starting with another Promatic PC4250 cartoner, which is in the process of being commissioned at Bionorica. In the future, the Bavarian pharmaceutical manufacturer’s complete liquid products range will be packaged using Romaco technology.

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