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Variable manufacturing in a time-sensitive world

A highly mobile plant floor, innovative communications approach, and flexible work force have Praxis Packaging thriving in western Michigan’s life sciences corridor.

Pw 8239 Praxis Starterkits

A sign in a conference room at Praxis Packaging ( reads: “To be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues” (Sun Tzu in The Art of War). Following that philosophy, the Grand Rapids, MI, company is growing by emphasizing variable manufacturing.

Here are just a few of the company’s wide-ranging recent projects that support this operational model that gives customers what they need, when they need it.

• A large electronics manufacturer asked the company to redesign packaging for its circuitry and replace polyvinyl chloride with recycled materials. Praxis developed a two-piece, heat-sealed RPET clamshell containing a die-cut virgin SBS board that suspends the product within the clear package, giving consumers a better view of the product on both sides of the package at consumer electronics stores and office supply stores.

• A major national pharmaceutical company needed nearly three million patient starter kits and standalone samples. Praxis met the company’s aggressive launch schedule by hiring and training the right employees, reconfiguring its highly flexible production lines, and working a three-shift, seven-day production schedule.

• A western Michigan marketer shipped the co-packer master cartons of Christmas holiday-themed paper plates, cups, and tablecloths. Praxis assembled them in rainbow packs on a tight shipping schedule for the holiday shopping season.

Projects such as these, on both a national and regional scale, are possible because Praxis has gone to unusual lengths to prepare itself to do virtually any project—including point-of-purchase and store display assembly, kitting, print-registered bundling, and stretch-card packaging—at almost any time. Macatawa Holdings LLC purchased the company in March 2006 and infused additional money into the operation. Capital assets have increased 27% in the first five months of 2007 and spending on worker training has escalated by 4,000% over the past two years. These investments enable Praxis to provide the cGMP-compliant facility and trained, variable work forces to broaden its capabilities They include its core pharmaceutical and OTC packaging services and the flexibility to quickly adapt its plant to shrink-wrap stacks of play money for board games and offer filling capabilities.

“I don’t have five-year plans anymore,” says Ted Etheridge, a partner at Macatawa Holdings. “I used to make them, but that’s too far out in the business of variable manufacturing. We turn on a dime. On Monday, we don’t know what we’ll be doing on Friday. If a big-box store wants rainbow packs in their stores in 24 hours, you can’t go back upstream to do that, so we have to be ready to do jobs like that here.”

Adds Scott Hanmer, vice president of sales at Praxis, “Our biggest challenge is to challenge ourselves to look for new opportunities.”

Those opportunities require mobile plant floor and precise time and work force management at the 110,000-sq-ft facility. Machinery that keeps each project humming is custom-made and mostly on wheels so it can be moved among the plant’s 16 production lines. Tooling is done in-house. The company sources packaging materials and expertise in areas such as printing from a network of regional partners, and Rick King, company president, said the plant is “comfortable” at $18 million in production capacity.

Approach to quality control

The centerpiece of Praxis’ approach to packaging line efficiency is a clever color-coded system of “visual identifiers.” Contract Packaging viewed the system in action, and hasn’t seen this communications approach used in other co-packing plants.

Each of the 16 lines is equipped with a series of colored “flags,” explains Anne Armstrong, director of quality assurance. When turned to the open position, they signal the line’s current operational status. For example, green means “running at optimal efficiency,” red represents “line stopped; quality auditor needs to check for defect,” and black communicates that “the line is idle.”

All of the production lines are situated sequentially along the main aisle to give senior managers a quick overview of the production area’s overall operational status, scrap rates, and organizational efficiency at a glance.

Product units rejected as they come off a production line are diverted into a red tote, dedicated to that line, for quality-control inspection.

Yellow portable barriers separate each production line and achieve several objectives. They identify to line inspectors and operators where production and temporary product holding areas begin and end for each job. They can be moved to allow for line mobility such as temporary conveyor configurations. They also make it easy for quality-control inspectors to identify when a product is out of place at a workstation.

With such attention to detail, senior managers at Praxis believe the company is poised to grow along with western Michigan’s burgeoning life sciences industry. Filling, packaging, and assembly work for prescription and OTC drugs, especially for product manufacturers that require the capability to ramp up and shut down packaging operations quickly, accounts for 75% of the company’s business.

Patient starter kits

One major pharmaceutical company’s recent project is a case in point. Praxis, working with printer SVH Group (, a division of Multi Packaging Solutions, created nearly 1.2 million physician patient starter kits and 1.7 million stand-alone samples in less than one month after the product received Food and Drug Administration approval. The two companies managed the entire design, print production, packaging, and fulfillment of the drug product and created compliance-prompting packaging.

The project started with a rough sketch of the packaging layout for the product. Within 24 hours, a napkin sketch was transformed into a full-color Kodak proof sample on SVH Group’s CAD system, enabling the pharma company’s marketing staff to see what the final product would look like and to suggest modifications.

Praxis and SVH Group produced the artwork and layout for the entire starter kit. The folder and dosage cartons were printed in five colors plus black, with an aqueous coating on one side, on a high-speed, six-color Heidelberg press. Three components were managed for various colors and were printed with color consistency. The pieces were all die-cut and straight-line glued.

Praxis and SVH Group sourced materials and provided every component for the package, including a three-panel master carton, 16-page patient booklet, two dosage cartons, a patient leaflet, a 12-count stand-alone carton, Velcro dots for the panel closure on the three-panel master carton, kit shippers, and master shippers.

The customer shipped 10-count blister strips of capsules to Praxis’ cGMP-compliant facility. However, the dosage requirements called for two five-count strips, so Praxis designed and built a slitting machine to separate the strip into two five-count strips, based on dosage strength, each with its own lot number.

Assessing ‘opportunity costs’

Praxis hired and trained employees to support a three-shift, seven-day operation to meet the pharma company’s aggressive launch schedule. “We work with a good local temp agency,” King says. “If we call in the morning and need 100 temporary workers for the afternoon shift, we will have them all by mid-shift.”

The starter kits and stand-alone samples were printed, assembled, packed, and shipped to the pharma company’s Midwest distribution center, on schedule, for initial launch in January 2007.

Etheridge uses the term “opportunity costs” to describe the value of an extremely flexible plant that can turn around packaged pharma products quickly after they receive regulatory approval. “We can’t wait,” he says. “If it’s not on the shelf or in the physician’s hands, somebody’s losing money. What’s the cost of that lost opportunity?”


Environmental savings impact


The environment is uppermost in operations at Praxis Packaging. Here is a 2006-2007 report card on the company’s recycling efforts.


2007 (through May 18)

639,124 total pounds of recycled paper products

5,433 trees saved

2.2 million gallons of water saved

959 cubic yards of landfill space saved

19,174 pounds of air pollution effluents eliminated



1.18 million total pounds of recycled paper products

10,039 trees saved

4.1 million gallons of water saved

1,772 cubic yards of landfill space saved

35,430 pounds of air pollution effluents eliminated



The author, Jim George, is the editor-in-chief of Contract Packaging magazine.

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