According to Agostino Consolini, marketing and pre-sales manager at IMA’s Safe division, one of the biggest changes in the market for pharmaceutical blister packaging and cartoning equipment in recent years has been the move towards monoblocs.
“Five years ago, the split was 50/50; we sold an equal number of monoblocs and separate blister packaging and cartoning machines. Today monoblocs account for 80% of sales while individual blister packaging and cartoning machines represent just 20% of our business,” explains Consolini.
He cites space savings, improved line efficiency and simple changeovers as the three main reasons for this shift in buying behaviour in favour of systems in which cartoning is incorporated within the same frame as the blister packer.
“When changing from one product to another, it takes 50% longer when using separate machines,” he says. “In terms of space, monoblocs typically save between one and 1.5m in line length, and all the controls are fully integrated, which makes the system easier to use.”
IMA Safe has recently expanded its monobloc offering to include machines that enable speeds of up to 500 cartons and 1,200 blisters per minute.
Another supplier pushing the monobloc is Germany’s Uhlmann Packaging Systems, which markets the Blister Express Center, a system that combines the thermoforming, cartoning and banding functions at up to 100 blisters per minute.
Separating the system
However, not all equipment suppliers agree that a monobloc is necessarily the best way of integrating the blister packaging and cartoning operations. Some prefer to keep the thermoforming system separate from the cartoner, in a modular approach its proponents claim confers maximum speed and flexibility. Romaco, for example, provides blister technology from its Noack line and cartoning technology from its Promatic production line.
“Romaco develops monobloc systems whenever it is technologically required, but the Noack lines do not rely on a general single frame. Rather Noack pursues a modular strategy. The different modules like the feeding unit, the various blister stations and the transfer module are easy to set up and to exchange when it comes to a technological upgrade,” explains Bernd Webel, sales director of Romaco Group.
The key to the modular approach is synchronisation, which involves both electronic and mechanical aspects. Electronic synchronisation can usually be accomplished fairly easily, through the individual units’ programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or other controls. Mechanical synchronisation can sometimes be trickier.
“To manage a smooth interface is of utmost importance,” says Webel. “Blisters should be tracked throughout the whole packaging process and passed directly to the cartoner.”
To this end, Romaco has developed the Noack QuickTransfer system, which connects the Noack 960R blister line to the Promatic PC 4250 continuous horizontal cartoner to form a single, integrated line. As a result, Romaco says the robotic transfer system now conveys each individual blister even more securely from the die cutting unit directly to the cartoner.
“The robotic transfer station of the new Noack 960R blister line picks the blisters via vacuum from the die-cutting station; a servo-driven lift and swivel mechanism conveys them into the automatic stacking station. This releases the blister stacks directly into the cartoner’s bucket chain. By this means the blisters are safely stacked and transferred,” explains Webel. In addition, Romaco said it had harmonised the operating terminals of both the blister packaging machine and the cartoner.
“The so-called QuickAdmin systems visualise all processes in a user-friendly way. The ergonomic HMI panels therefore simplify the control and monitoring of the blister line,” says Webel. “Batch and production data can be transferred to the downstream system. All relevant batch data has to be read only once. This saves time and significantly facilitates the running of the blister line.”
MediSeal is another equipment supplier that has embraced the modular approach, with an offering for mid-range outputs that sees its CP400 blister line operating in conjunction with its P3200 cartoning machine.
Rapid format changes In May, the German firm announced several improvements to the line, including central control of format data management via the operator terminal, a development which the company said supports rapid format changes and boosts the line’s overall equipment efficiency.
MediSeal adds that it favours the concept of direct transfer between the two units, without intermediate stacking units, as this minimises the number of format parts.
Suppliers can argue the toss between modular and monobloc systems, but one point they do agree on is that when taking the modular approach, it is best to buy both pieces of equipment from the same supplier.
There may be scenarios where integrating equipment from two different suppliers is inevitable; for example, where adding to existing plant. This, however, has its challenges, as Consolini explains: “Each supplier has their own ideas about the height of the blister exit and the speed of the machines, and there are sometimes problems around the electrical connections.”
Mathias Ponzelar, product manager with Oystar IWK, identifies the biggest challenge as the blister transfer from the blister machine into the cartoner machine, but says that IWK offers different transfer systems to integrate blister machines from different suppliers with an IWK cartoning machine.
Webel concludes: “When it comes to complex line configurations it is definitely an advantage to have the blister packaging and cartoning kit from one supplier. Technologically the interface between the systems represents one of the biggest engineering challenges.”