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Automation times six at Apotex

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A new packaging operation has six identical lines that fill bottles with tablets twice as fast as the lines they replaced and with one-third fewer operators. Two vision inspection systems are being auditioned.

Already the largest prescription drug manufacturer in Canada Toronto-based Apotex Inc. aims to get a lot bigger. "We package about 4 billion tablets and capsules per year here" says director of technical services Ron Golik. "Our goal for 1999 is to do 8 billion tablets all supplied by our nearby manufacturing facility." Achieving such lofty goals would have been out of the question had the firm not recently opened a new packaging and distribution facility not far from Toronto's Pearson International Airport. It occupies about 200 sq ft on two floors and most packaging is done on six new and nearly identical bottle filling lines. They handle high-density polyethylene or polystyrene bottles ranging in size from 40 to 2 cc and holding anywhere from 20 to 5 tablets. The bottles are either round or square and come from various suppliers. In the Apotex plant where these products were formerly packaged six lines were operated by six people per line. Now each of the new lines requires four operators and throughput has doubled for most products. Why six identical tablet lines? To allow high output with maximum flexibility. Regardless of what the prescription drug market requires or how quickly it's needed Apotex can rely on any of six lines to get the job done. "We package more than 275 different products yet the lines require few change parts" says Golik. One way to minimize change parts was to avoid slat counters. Their operating principle requires a slat correctly sized for every tablet that's packaged. This makes them suitable for dedicated lines. With as many tablet varieties as Apotex packages slat counters would have required a sizable and expensive inventory of change parts. Electronic counter/fillers Instead the firm opted for filling equipment that counts tablets electronically regardless of size or shape. These machines greatly simplify product changeover. On all seven lines the same hopper trackwork sensors and chutes package all tablets. To avoid product contamination these parts are changed whenever a new product is scheduled for a given line. But rather than seeking a specific set of parts from inventory workers retrieve from the washing room any clean set of change parts regardless of the tablet being produced. The electronic counter/fillers selected by Apotex are Swiftpack models supplied by Kalish (Montreal Canada and Somerville NJ). All six lines are equipped with at least two Swiftpacks and two lines have four of them in what Kalish calls a quad configuration. Should Apotex choose to it could make all six lines quad lines. The use of multiple counter/fillers makes each line capable of high speeds. If for example one Swiftpack is capable of filling a 100-count bottle at 30/min an output of 60 bottles/min is attained by dividing the flow of bottles into two lanes and adding a second Swiftpack. Add another pair of Swiftpacks and a combined throughput of 120 bottles/min is achieved in the quad configuration. Dividing bottles into lanes is accomplished by means of an air cylinder-operated gating system. For a predetermined amount of time the gate directs bottles down one lane. It then shifts and sends them down the other. In the quad configurations filling remains a two-lane operation. Swiftpack #1 and #3 are mounted over one conveyor lane while #2 and #4 are above the other. Single-filed containers index into each machine in pairs. The lead container gets filled by the first Swiftpack it pauses under the trailing container gets filled by the second. Running in the quad mode isn't always necessary since the small bottles can be handled at adequate speeds by just two tablet counter/fillers. But for 100-count bottles and up the quad configuration permits Apotex to run at good speeds: 120 bottles/min for 100-count bottles 25/min for 1-count. This is about twice the speed provided by the old lines. The lead piece of equipment in each line is a bottle unscrambler supplied by Omega Design (Lionville PA). Workers dump bottles into the unscrambler hopper by hand. The bottles are inverted air cleaned uprighted and fed into the conveyor system that distributes them to the filler. Next in line are the Swiftpack electronic counter/fillers. Tablets are vibrated from hoppers onto a 16-track tray. At the end of this first tray they drop an inch or so into the tracks of a second tray and then similarly into a third. By the time the tablets are in the third tray they've been divided into 16 single-filed rows and each of these rows now passes beneath an electronic sensing head that counts tablets. A mechanical device holds the counted tablets from the discharge chute until an empty bottle is properly positioned. The tablets then drop into the bottle. Next in line is a Garvey (Blue Anchor NJ) accumulation table followed by a Lakso (Leominster MA) cottoner and then an automatic inspection station made by Apotex that rejects any bottle whose cotton is either missing or protruding over the finish of the bottle. Satisfactory bottles proceed through a capper (from different suppliers depending on the line) cap inspection (performed by an Apotex-built unit) and a Garvey accumulation table before entering the pressure-sensitive labeler a Uni-510 made by Charles Lapierre (Montreal Canada). Like other equipment in the six lines one of the labeler's strong suits is ease of changeover. Display monitor "A digital display monitor lets you make settings according to precise reference numbers for each bottle size" says Golik. "Take height adjustment for example. Whatever the reference number is the operator sees it on the monitor and resets the machine to that number. Then he moves to the next key parameter say container diameter and dials in that reference number to make that adjustment." The bottom line is that all operators set up the labelers according to the same numerical standards rather than by putting a container in place and eyeballing the adjustments that need to be made. This eliminates subtle variations from one run to another the kinds of variations that can cause not-so-subtle inconsistencies in production efficiency. One other convenient feature on the labeler is a built-in platform for placement of an automated inspection system which good manufacturing practice guidelines have made essential in the pharmaceutical industry. Apotex is currently evaluating two different systems for bar code inspection on its seven lines. One is the Argus 4 supplied by Laetus Systems (Morris Plains NJ). It employs sensors to collect and send information back to a central processor and it's practically the standard in the pharmaceutical industry. The other inspection system Apotex is test driving is of more recent vintage and in fact Golik refers to it as the "next generation." He's comparing the two options side by side on his lines before he and his colleagues make a firm decision one way or another. 'Smart' sensing heads Made by Germany's PCE and available in North America through Charles Lapierre the so-called "next generation" inspection system differs from comparable systems because each of its on-line sensing heads is as Golik puts it "smart." In other words rather than a system in which on-line sensing heads merely relay information back to one central processing unit the PCE employs on-line sensing heads that are themselves processing units. Such an approach adds flexibility and simplifies the task of collecting and analyzing data about how the lines are operating. Already the scanning system performs an important inspection function by scanning the bar code on every label. If the information in the bar code on the label doesn't match that of the packaging order the labeler stops dispensing labels. Under current procedures the line operator tells the inspection system what bar code to look for by programming it on a computer keyboard during setup. But soon the bar code will be scanned in. Lot number expiration date and bar code will continue to be thermal transfer printed and verified in the label room. When the group leader readies a work order he'll retrieve the printed labels from locked inventory. At the labeling machine he'll simply scan the bar code on the packaging order with a scanning wand and the PCE system will automatically be programmed for 100% inspection of that run. It's one more way of reducing the possibility of human error in programming the system. One thing neither the PCE nor the Laetus system inspects for is label presence on a bottle. So a second instrument built in-house by Apotex senses label presence by the reflection of ultraviolet light. Downstream from this inspection station is an induction sealing unit (from varied suppliers depending on the line) that induction seals the cap's inner foil liner. Caps are then retorqued before entering an automated bundler from RBS (Toronto Ontario Canada) that wraps bottles in clear shrink film. As bottles emerge from the shrink tunnel they're manually palletized for removal to the warehouse downstairs. Occasionally the bottles are cartoned in which case a portable cartoner and carton film overwrapper are wheeled into place ahead of the bundler. Robotics on the way Next on the shopping list for Apotex is a robotic palletizing system. But the firm has already automated pallet removal from the packaging area to the distribution floor. An automated guided vehicle system from The Raymond Co. (Greene NY) travels a complete loop from warehouse to packaging room. When a pallet is ready for removal from packaging an operator sends a signal to one of the AGV cars which then comes to take the pallet to the warehouse. Conversely the AGVs are used to replenish the packaging lines with caps bottles shrink film and so on. From AGVs to robotics to new-generation inspection systems Apotex clearly aimed to make its new plant a showcase of packaging technology and automation. In the process it solidified its position as a leader in the pharmaceutical industry.


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