Global Processing

Using buffer systems to optimize packaging efficiency and maintain product quality

July 22, 2005

As the pharmaceutical industry continues to advance in terms of technology and product formulations, packaging efficiency is key to ensuring profitable and trouble-free operations and consistent quality.

To remain efficient, packaging lines must run with a high degree of stability, with each machine performing at optimum levels and experiencing the lowest possible downtimes. Unplanned downtime can cause great disruption in the manufacturing process and can lead to considerable financial impact.

One way that pharmaceutical manufacturers can enhance the efficiency and profitability of their packaging lines is to incorporate buffer systems. Buffer systems balance production output between work centers and raise throughput by increasing the line’s operating time.

How do buffers work?

Buffer systems, which come in several different forms including alpine conveyors and accumulation tables, provide temporary storage space for products when a brief line interruption occurs and help ensure constant product flow during speed changes. Products are automatically metered back into the production flow when the disruption is cleared.

In a production line, every machine must run slightly faster than the one before it (around 1-3%) to ensure proper product ‘pull’ and prevent backup. Each time a machine stops, an inefficiency is experienced, preventing the system from reaching its ideal performance level.

Since buffer systems isolate individual consecutive processes, each machine achieves maximum performance while assuring regular and continuous production flow. While not physically contributing to the packaging process like filling or capping machines, buffer systems help balance production and increase throughput, which can add up to significant savings in time and expense.

Taking the next step

To find out if incorporating this technology into your production line will be beneficial, conduct a buffer study. These studies examine and deliver information about several key areas, such as the desirability of a buffer system, calculated efficiency increase, buffer system capacity and location, optimal speed for highest throughput and economic justification.

The first step in a buffer study is to identify downtime. While every piece of equipment experiences downtime, there are some distinctions to consider. Scheduled downtime refers to machine stoppages that are anticipated, such as changes to the labeler roll or case sealer tape roll. In these cases, the analyst should identify the activity, duration and periodicity for each piece of equipment in the production line being examined.

Unscheduled downtime is more complicated, as stoppages may result from jams or machine breakdowns and their source may not initially be known. In this case, the analyst should observe the line over several shifts and collect historical data. Guaranteed machine efficiency can also be used as a guideline for downtime duration and frequency. For any new equipment being purchased, OEMs can provide the theoretical or historical downtime of the equipment as a reference point.

Once completing this study, the packager must decide whether the investment in a buffer system can be justified. Justifiable opportunities are defined as solutions that can be implemented and eliminate the source of downtime. Buffer systems become justifiable when minor downtime is experienced, such as stoppages taking less than 10 minutes to correct. In cases like these, the increase in production associated with integrating a buffer system would easily justify the system’s expense.

Unjustifiable opportunities are solutions for which implementation is not economically viable. When a line faces major downtimes, such as stoppages taking 10 minutes or longer, buffer systems will not provide the necessary support to warrant the investment. If stoppages of this length are frequent, packagers should reevaluate the design of their production line and examine equipment operation for flaws.

Choosing a buffer

There are several types of buffer systems available, each with different geometries, requirements, capabilities, advantages and disadvantages given the product size and shape, speed, orientation and accumulation requirement. Major accumulation categories are: in-line continuous accumulators (serpentines, alpines and extending belt systems), batch indexing accumulators (vertical and horizontal, although horizontal versions are seldom used) and random continuous accumulators (bi-directional, counterflow and turntables). Packagers should consult with experienced integrators to determine which type fits their product and line configuration the best.

First-In First-Out (FIFO) buffer systems ensure the first product into the queue is the first product out. Often in alpine form, FIFO systems have a small footprint and utilize a small amount of floor space when compared to other buffer configurations. Ideal for pharmaceutical and food manufacturers, FIFO buffer systems allow for product accountability (i.e. lot number, production time) for tracking at a later date. For example, if a machine breaks down and there is product contamination, FIFO systems allow manufacturers to quickly and easily isolate the products that need to be recalled. FIFO buffer systems are also ideal for products that cannot be exposed to light or temperature for an extended period.

First-In Last-Out (FILO) refers to the process where products leave their queue in the reverse order from that in which they arrived. FILO buffer systems are available in horizontal or vertical formats.

The most common buffer systems operate on a First-In Random-Out (FIRO) basis. Often in turntable format, FIRO buffers can offer bi-directional (can receive or discharge product) or counter flow operations. As implied by the name, products are randomly discharged during this process, offering no accountability or sequencing.

Wrapping up

Taking steps to incorporate buffer systems can be a cost-effective way to optimize pharmaceutical packaging. Bypassing stops and breakdowns allows for continuous production flow, preventing product and quality loss. The systems also optimize space through compact design and construction.

Be sure to conduct an in-depth study to determine if a buffer system can provide the solution you need or if there is a more serious design or equipment flaw causing production issues. In addition, work with a knowledgeable material handler systems integrator to select the buffer model that meets individual requirements and is flexible enough to expand or accommodate new products.