In the heart of Research Triangle Park NC a center for health and government research Pilling Weck packages more than 70 disposable medical devices each with its own catalog number. FDA requires stringent product labeling regulations for these products. Separate details are necessary for cartons exported to Europe Asia and Latin America three emerging growth areas for Pilling Weck's business.
Meeting these regulations is an ample challenge itself but throw in six company name changes between 1987 and 1993 necessitated by a combination of corporate mergers realignments or divestitures and you begin to appreciate the headaches faced by the company's packaging team assigned to update carton printing and labeling. The current Pilling Weck name stems from a 1993 acquisition of Bristol Myers' Weck by Teleflex who merged the business into its Pilling Division.
"Just redoing package artwork and reprinting different folding cartons was costly and cumbersome" recalls Jeff Haggerty Pilling Weck's purchasing and production planning manager for disposables. Besides its disposables business Pilling Weck sells more than 1 reusable noncartoned instruments to hospitals. Packaging of these products is presently being upgraded with automated bagging and thermal printing equipment.
Prior to '93 Pilling Weck exclusively used preprinted SBS cartons for its disposables. This diversity "posed the possibility of carton mix-ups" Haggerty relates "where a product might accidentally wind up in a carton preprinted for a different product. What's more with separate preprinted cartons we had problems managing and balancing carton inventory levels." Maintaining such inventories also consumed valuable space in Pilling Weck's 190-sq-ft warehouse.
Taking stock of these difficulties and considering the possibility that corporate transactions could alter future package graphics Pilling Weck worked with its long-time carton converter Colonial Carton (Clayton NC) to find a "grand slam" solution that would (1) assure that the right product goes into the right appropriately identified carton; (2) print specific regulatory information on the carton for sale in a particular country; (3) allow purchase of cartons that would work for more than one catalog number; and (4) reduce cost per carton and use recycled fiber content.
Haggerty senior engineering design technician Kim Kasdorf and packaging engineer Tom Blackburn worked with Colonial Carton president Joe Elphick to explore using generic cartons with printing limited to company and brand name. Catalog-specific details as of '94 are printed in-house on a Label-Aire (Fullerton CA) Model 2138 printer/applicator that is equipped with a printhead made by Sato (Sunnyvale CA). The unit prints onto pressure-sensitive label stock.
Elphick also steered Pilling Weck away from SBS board which was expensive when ordered for smaller-volume disposables to a clay-coated newsback substrate with recycled fiber suitable for demanding medical applications. Like its SBS predecessor the CCNB is 20-pt in caliper. Colonial Carton offset-prints CCNB sheets supplied by Jefferson Smurfit (St. Louis MO) on either of two KBA-Planeta (Williston VT) machines in lots of 40. The converter warehouses sheets and delivers them to Pilling Weck on a "release order" basis.
"We still order some preprinted cartons but even those are clay-coated newsback" says Kasdorf. "At least 60% of our cartons are now generic" he explains. "By generic we're not referring to nonpreprinted cartons but to cartons with no specific product catalog number. The key thing is that a generic carton can be used for multiple catalog numbers within the same product line."
Pilling Weck's line of Hemoclip® surgical clips was the first to make the transition going from 29 preprinted SBS cartons to one generic carton. So far Haggerty estimates "our carton changes have saved us about 30% in material costs and allowed us to cut in half the number of cartons we have to order and store for disposables."
A look at the line
Low-volume and new disposable medical devices are manually packed into blisters of various materials and heat-sealed on one of two Alloyd (DeKalb IL) units to preprinted die-cut Tyvek lidding material from DuPont (Wilmington DE). As product volume increases it cost-justifies the use of one of two Multivac (Kansas City MO) machines that forms blisters from a base web of polyvinyl chloride and heat-seals them to Tyvek lidstock. While the Multivacs form fill and seal Pilling Weck bypasses the filling function in favor of manual loading.
"We've looked into vision systems over the years to perform inspection of loaded product but we don't feel the technology exists to do an adequate job of inspection for all the parameters we look at" notes Kasdorf.
Sealed blisters are manually loaded into cartons. Cartons then pass through a checkweigher to verify product quantity. Next the Label-Aire prints the label with appropriate regulatory (and country-specific) details bar code size quantity catalog number manufacturing/expiration dates and sterilization method. The printed label is transferred to a printer/applicator pad assembly and held in place by vacuum. The pad lowers into position just 1/8" above the filled carton that has indexed to the machine. As the carton conveys past a sensor vacuum is replaced by a blast of air that blows the label onto the carton.
Labels are subsequently bar-code scanned then cartons are placed into a corrugated shipping case. Cases are hand-stacked onto pallets for ethylene-oxide sterilization then shipped to hospitals and medical customers worldwide via air land or surface.
"We began this labeling approach last year" says Haggerty "and it has been successful in meeting all the objectives we set with Colonial Carton. We have a foolproof product loading and labeling system that ensures that the right label goes onto the carton holding that specific product. And because our carton supplier prints and manages our generic carton inventory our print orders can be larger but our unit costs per carton are lower. We've also introduced recycled fiber content packaging with no appreciable impact on marketing appearance. And though I hope we won't have to change our name again we're now ready for anything."