Production and packaging of pharmaceutical goods has always been a challenging task. While cost constraints and efficiency requirements push the limits of production and machine speeds, the whole industry is placed under tight control to ensure safe and sterile medication. High-speed imaging provides an effective and reliable way to improve production and to ensure compliance with stringent regulations.

Pharmaceutical glass packaging comes in all shapes and sizes.
Automatic filling of syringes. This video highlights two settings.

One aspect of the production process is the packaging of powder and liquids in glass syringes, bottles, and phials. Glass is a perfect material in terms of inert chemical properties and the protection it provides from environmental impact. On fast-moving packaging machines, however, the material can break. Broken glass creates small glass chips that can fall into the machine, and in the worst case, into the medication on the production line. 

Of course, the medicine is rendered useless by this event and needs to be safely disposed of. For many production lines in the pharmaceutical realm, this not only means stopping the production line but effectively disposing of the entire production lot. Before production can be restarted, complete cleaning and sterilisation of the machine is required. The hardest task is to prove to the supervising authority that the cause of contamination has been eliminated and that it is now safe to start production again. 

A straightforward approach to tackling this is the use of high-speed surveillance of critical mechanical components within the machines. When played back in slow motion, the high-speed videos allow the process to unfold, millisecond by millisecond. They show exactly when and where the glass cracks and eventually breaks, providing a solid starting point for comprehensible and straightforward solutions on how to bring the machines back into production.

High-speed videos can also be put to good use before disruptions occur. The slightest production deviation can be monitored in full detail, bringing quality management to a higher level.

Frame Rate Requirements

High speed is needed wherever cycle times of less than one second make movement too fast for the human eye to perceive. Here, high speed refers to the number of frames per second. To provide a point of comparison, movies are filmed and played at 24 fps, whereas high-speed cameras produced by Mikrotron GmbH deliver between 250 and 200,000 fps. This frame rate capacity makes it possible to follow even the fastest moving components in production systems. 

The automated filling of a syringe, for example, is sometimes a matter of just 500 milliseconds. Nevertheless, this process is prone to error. Syringes are not correctly located on the nozzles and crack or break; fluid leaks, coating the sides of the syringe; air voids cause spring-like compressions in the fluid provoking an extended force length; the fluid is not filled to the required height or overflows. The issues that can arise are as varied as their causes.

Resolution Requirements

Production of blister packs used to package one-day contact lenses. The slow-motion analysis shows the ejection of the packs after molding.

The second important feature of the system needs to be a resolution high enough to cover larger areas, yet it must still be able to differentiate between moving parts or to see interactions clearly. Even minimal errors in pick-and-place operations, for example, can lead to costly stagnation.

Depending on the size of the plate springs and their quantity, resolution requirements vary. Supervising a single 10 mm small plate spring requires a resolution of approximately 400 x 300 pixel resolution. However, when it is not immediately clear which plate spring is causing the trouble and an entire row of 20 plates needs to be monitored, the required resolution is 1,200 x 900 pixels.

Solution Requirements

Once the video is recorded, it can be visually inspected to find the cause of production error, enabling a solution to be found. When insulin syringes were damaged during production at Rexam Pharma GmbH, now Nemera, a high-speed recording with a MotionBLITZ® Cube3 provided clear evidence of cause and effect. The grabber was simply opening too early. The syringes were not positioned correctly. The video demonstrated by how many milliseconds the grabber was lagging behind and the machine was reprogrammed accordingly.

Mounting of plastic half shell. The slow motion video shows the vibration of the work piece.

A further step is to use software to analyse motion. Motion analysis can help detect slight movements, erratic behaviour and to locate discrepancies. It provides precise values that are crucial for the exact and optimized setting of machines. 

The findings can also be used to run an internal statistical analysis, cooperate with the machine manufacturer to improve the system and to show a before/after comparison to the authorities, thereby achieving approval to ramp up production again.

Any machine can get clogged up. It is crucial that the reasons behind this are found quickly and eliminated properly. A vision channel with the right parameters to enable analysis, combined with options that are easy to use and integrate, as well as recording time, can help to restart production faster and improve the yield significantly over time.