Machine vision speeds up flexible pharmaceutical manufacturing systems
By Carlos Diaz,
Control Systems Specialist
There is an episode of The Simpsons where the Homer and Barney tour the Duff beer plant. An inspection worker watches bottles speed by and pulls bottles containing a dead mouse, a syringe and a nose. When the inspector gets distracted by Barney asking a question, all sorts of “non-conforming” items move down the line: a tiny dolphin, a pair of dentures and a jar containing a human head.
It’s a funny scene and one I relate to, having spent years in the brewing industry implementing machine vision technologies. The cameras, sensor systems and software that make up these systems could inspect bottles, sealing, fill levels and labeling. Tens of thousands of bottles flowed through our production systems every day. Machine vision is a reliable way of prompting intervention by quality assurance to ensure that unsuitable products do not reach the customer.
The need for machine vision systems in pharmaceutical manufacturing is even more pronounced. No one wants to be responsible for harming patients, jeopardizing regulatory conformance or wasting expensive formulations. Machine vision systems can help improve production speed and quality, and reduce risk.
As a company focusing on fill / finish, we faced the engineering challenge of creating reliable machine vision systems to support QA for the filling and capping of nests of pre-sterilized vials, syringes and cartridges. Nested formats are becoming common in facilities that make multiple products on non-dedicated lines or where novel delivery formats require greater sophistication in the fill finish stage. Without machine vision, reliable QA for differing alignments, container types and sizes within nested formats would be very difficult. Using it, the process is reliable and automated for efficiency.
As a specific example, a nest enters the isolated workcell, and machine vision guides a robot in removing the cover from the tray. The tray moves to a filling platform, and another camera checks the tray’s correct alignment on the platform, and whether any containers are missing from the tray.
If a container is missing, the system can temporarily halt production, remove the non-conforming tray and have the next tray enter the production queue. This saves expensive medicine from being spilled into the workcell. Similar checks happen at the capping stage, a camera can check whether each container has its cap applied. In both examples, patient safety and production efficiency benefits from the use of machine vision-based quality assurance.
A machine vision system has to reliably perform these functions in different light conditions— some compounds are light-sensitive—and to be adaptive and reliable with a myriad of different nest and container types. This is where our problem-solving has focused on integrating the robotics, cameras and embedded software to be nearly universal in working with different trays, containers and closures. The cameras and robotics have to be taught how to operate together, and its takes significant effort to reach the point where the user interface is appears simple. The effort we’ve made results in a system that speeds production and requires a minimum of human intervention.
At the end of their tour, Homer and Barney get to try all the varieties of Duff beer. We see multiple taps, but every tap comes from the same mega container of beer. It’s the opposite of Duff for the pharma industry—revenue is coming from a wider number of high-value therapeutics. Machine vision is a crucial technology for helping pharma companies keep production systems moving and still produce at exceptional quality levels.
We do have to keep some things secret, so please contact us if you want more information on our solutions or the specific application of machine vision in pharmaceutical fill finish applications.
Vanrx is focused on gloveless fill finish machines that use isolated robotics to provide exceptional aseptic product quality and efficiency. The company recently announced the availability of machine vision inspection for our SA25 Aseptic Fill Finish Workcell and Lyophilizer loading products, used to fill vials, syringes and cartridges in nests that contain parenteral (injectable) products.