Private label OTC drug maker adds a cartoner designed specifically for the pharmaceutical industry, handling both glue and tuck-style cartons.
By David Newcorn, Senior Editor
When looking for a new cartoner to accommodate a surge in business John Dambrauskas vice president of operations for Private Formulations Inc. found a curious phenomenon. He could either buy a high-end high-speed machine capable of 500/min speeds at a premium price or he could buy a 120/min cartoner designed for small orders and frequent changeovers. But right in the middle the pickings were rather slim. "We were looking for something more in the range of 200 to 250 because that was the type of line that we were anticipating putting together" says Dambrauskas. In other words keep the changeover fast but improve line speed capability. Pushing past $60 million in sales this year the Edison NJ-based private label drug maker produces over 1 SKUs of solid-dose over-the-counter cough and cold remedies including analgesics and antihistamines for more than 50 customers. PFI manufactures for major drug chains like Walgreens Revco and Kmart in addition to well-known national-brand marketers. Like most contract packagers PFI needed a cartoner that could not only provide a speed boost but also would accommodate multiple and frequent carton size changes all while not busting the budget. PFI had more in mind than just package size flexibility. The company is just getting into what's expected to be a year-plus transition from tuck to glued cartons. Since most customers are still using up tuck carton inventory while others have already progressed to glue PFI needed a cartoner that could rapidly switch between both. At roughly the same time Dambrauskas remembers seeing an article on a prototype cartoner by R.A. Jones (Cincinnati OH). "We would have loved a Jones machine but we thought it would be out of our price range" says Dambrauskas. This machine was different. Aimed squarely at the pharmaceutical industry the fully automatic Legacy® small-center cartoner caught his attention for its medium speed capability and fast changeover. It is also touted by Jones as the first cartoner that's convertible between tuck and glue. Dambrauskas placed a call. After a short lead-time of six months Jones installed the machine in August '95 on one of PFI's existing three solid-dose bottling lines. The cartoner contributed to a 275% speed increase to 200 cartons/min for 100-count bottles. "Of course the cartoner can go much higher" says Dambrauskas noting that it's rated at 300/min. Previously each of PFI's three lines ran at about 80/min. The cartoner permits full three-dimensional size changes in 25 minutes. Change from tuck to glue or vice versa takes only about 30 minutes. PFI makes two to three changeovers per eight-hour shift which can be a change in size a change from tuck to glue or a combination. What is it about the Legacy that makes it a convertible tuck/glue change machine? Jones says it engineered the tuck closing section to be a four-station section instead of the more typical eight. Separately glue assemblies usually run across two or three sections so it was simple to increase it to four so that Jones could take a modular approach in swapping between sections for a quick changeover. The cartoner wasn't the only new piece on the line however. PFI added a new slat counter/tablet filler cottoner capper and labeler. The company used the old components to put together a partial fourth line which Dambrauskas calls a jump line to be used when one of the other lines is being changed over. When automatic case packing is installed later this year the line is projected to run with only three operators down from six currently. Dambrauskas notes that the same line required 10 operators when he joined the company six and a half years ago. During PW's visit the line was packaging twin-packs of glued cartons (containing 40-cc bottles) at speeds of 160 bottles/min. Operatorless slat counter After starting out with an existing unscrambler that delivers high-density polyethylene bottles to the line a new Lakso (Leominster MA) Model 990 slat counter relies on a built-in scanner to detect missing tablets. "It scans every slat to give us 100% verification" says Dambrauskas. "If one tablet is missing it will reject that bottle once it's filled and cycled through the machine." Like many slat counters this one is capable of shuttling the filling spouts back and forth between two lanes yielding speeds of over 250 bottles/min for a 100-count container. Currently PFI uses just one lane although plans are to increase the filler speed to take better advantage of the cartoner's capacity. The slat counter takes the longest to changeover--90 minutes--since slats dedicated to each tablet size must be changed. However PFI gangs other machine changeover to occur simultaneously so that a complete line changeover does not exceed an hour and a half. Merely changing the number of tablets per bottle only takes 15 to 20 minutes and doesn't involve changing slats. After filling bottles pass through a cottoner and an in-house-designed sensor system to check for no cotton or high cotton. Containers then phase through a new Kaps-All (Riverhead NY) screw capper with electronic torque monitoring and pneumatic adjustment capability. PFI added a sensor to verify the presence of a foil innerseal which comes already inserted in the polypropylene child-resistant continuous-thread closures. Photo cells also inspect for cocked or missing caps kicking off rejects before they pass through a new Lepel (Edgewood NY) induction sealer. Sensors placed before and after the induction sealer clock the entry and exit time of the containers. This setup detects containers whose seals have potentially burned due to a line stoppage. Upon a restart a reject mechanism kicks off stalled containers. Bottles then enter a new Model 334 labeler from New Jersey Machine (Lebanon NH). Dambrauskas says PFI is one of the first users of this model which is designed for the mid-range market. Prior to label application the bar code is verified (see sidebar) and labelstock is hot stamped with lot and expiration date. A "blob-detect" reflective photocell verifies the presence of the lot and expiration date code but does not actually read it. Creative cartoning The cartoning process starts with the leaflet folder. After leaflets are folded into a strip and are scanned to verify the bar code they are guided into the floor of the bucket conveyor that receives the individual bottles. A mechanism in the bucket folds the leaflet over the top of the bottle and back down the other side. Meanwhile a rotary suction wheel pulls flat carton blanks from the low-level magazine opens them into the lugs and plows back the major flaps. A star-shaped rotary mechanism spreads the minor flaps. A photocell in the cartoner checks for the presence of a bottle and insert before pulling a carton. Like all Jones machines the bucket conveyor section that holds the bottles and folded inserts follows an uphill path towards the insertion zone where the open cartons are waiting. Jones says this design eliminates the need for a camming action of the carton across the lugs minimizing the travel of the bottle and the leaflet into the cartons. A barrel loader then pushes the bottles and inserts into the cartons. Regardless of whether it's tuck or glue flaps are closed over a four-station continuous-motion section. Hot melt is supplied by a Nordson (Duluth GA) applicator. One feature that helps PFI cut waste is a cycle stop feature. Ordinarily in the event of a stoppage cartons that have received glue but haven't yet been closed must be discarded. On this machine the flaps are automatically closed in the event of a stoppage eliminating that waste. Tuck too Changeover from glue to tuck takes 20 to 30 minutes. To conduct a change an operator unplugs the quick-disconnect cables removes two bolts on the glue assembly and simply lifts it out of the machine. A tuck assembly is then dropped into place the bolts replaced and quick-change cables plugged in. No tools are required. Size changeover is speedy too with a three-dimensional change taking about 20 to 25 minutes according to Dambrauskas. Unlike the tuck-to-glue change quick size changes have become more common on cartoning machines in the last three years. Although PFI runs 1 SKUs it has just finished converting all its customers to eight common carton and bottle sizes ranging from 3/4" x 3/4" x 2 1/2" to 3" x 3" x 7 1/4". Bottles range from 40 to 250 cc. The cartoner can also insert two 50-cc or smaller bottles into one physical carton printed to look like a twin-pack. PFI is working on modifications to allow the cartoner to handle larger bottle sizes in a twin carton. Changeover instructions Dambrauskas says the line sees two to three changeovers per eight-hour shift whether it's glue-to-tuck carton size or a combination. PFI tries to minimize changeover by running its highest volume items on the revamped line ganging same-size different brand production together. "That way all we're doing is a label change which is just 20 minutes" Dambrauskas says. For any changeover the operator control panel displays detailed instructions. The operator simply looks for the numbered change point on the actual machine and makes the setting dictated by the instructions on the screen. "It walks you through every aspect of the change" says Dambrauskas. Finished cartons travel into a continuous-motion collator/overwrapper from BFB represented in the U.S. by IMA North America (Fairfield CT). At 120 twin-packs/min it's the fastest overwrapper for twin-packs of any machine PFI could find according to Dambrauskas. This is because the continuous-motion side belts that convey the collated group of cartons are heated forming the seal as the cartons travel through the machine. The machine can collate and wrap up to six cartons using low-density polyethylene film. Changeover on this machine is fast as well about half an hour. All change points are indicated on the operator control panel just like on the cartoner. At the end of the line multipacks can receive a blow-on price label as well as a separate bar code and lot/expiration label from existing labelers. Product is currently manually packed though PFI is looking to automate this function too. The other final addition to the line will be ink-jet coders for printing scannable bar codes onto corrugated shippers. Private Formulations was so pleased with the cartoner's versatility that within six months it or- dered a second Legacy. For John Dambrauskas Jones provided more than engineering know-how at an acceptable price. "When you buy equipment I believe you buy a service organization to support that piece of equipment. Jones has an excellent reputation" he says. "They spent the time and effort in here helping us making the project a success."