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Automating manual operations
 
Q: How do I know if it's time to automate manual operations in tablet filling and packaging?
 
A: John Deitz, Deitz, says:
 
imageYou usually don't have to upgrade your entire filling line from manual or semiautomated to fully automated operations all at once. You can automate one or a few operations at a time, with a plan to add more as the company grows and production increases and as the budget allows.
 
Solid dosage manufacturers and contract packagers typically consider automating manual operations when significant, immediate problems are causing line downtime or when they can no longer tolerate an ongoing series of problems. Some companies do plan to automate upon reaching a goal or growth milestone, but more often, companies automate when they realize it's the only way, or the most effective way, to be profitable.
 
Reasons to automate
Downtime. Automation may solve a bottleneck in a line, where one or more steps in the process can't keep up with others upstream. Tearing cotton from a roll and inserting it into a bottle takes a fair amount of time, and an operator can find it difficult to consistently perform the task in the same amount of time every time. Manual insertion can also be an ergonomic nightmare. Filled bottles can stand waiting for cotton, backing up on the conveyor or requiring another person to manage the overflow.
 
Some operations, such as tablet counting, metal detection, and heat shrinking tamper-evident bands, are simply impractical to perform by hand. Forming neck bands by hand over and over again is a difficult process to perform correctly and can cause backups in the process.
 
Similarly, a manual step early in the filling process, such as inserting desiccants, may move at a slower speed than other steps downstream, causing a failure to capitalize on the full capabilities of downstream machinery or leaving other workers idle.
 
Production can move more slowly than desired because it always moves at the speed of the slowest operation, and downtime can become all too common. You often can resolve this type of bottleneck at a very low cost with powered turntables to manage bottle feeding, metering, and/or accumulation.
 
Quality. The demand for speed can push operators to make mistakes. They may fail to place desiccant under tablets or seal a cap perfectly, or they may not secure a tamper-evident neck band properly so that it fails to stay sealed during delivery.
 
Scrapping and reworking bottles for quality control after they've gone down the line quickly becomes very costly, and companies often wish they'd been quicker to recognize just how costly. Furthermore, packaging quality, such as the seal at the cap or the placement of the neck band, can influence the end user's feelings about the quality of the product inside the bottle. Quality issues often suggest that it's time to look at automating a process.
 
Lack of workers. Many companies move toward automation because they can't find enough workers to do a job manually. In an economy with record-low unemployment, it's challenging to find good workers and keep them on the job. For growing companies, reducing human-resources challenges certainly adds to the allure of automation.
 
In other cases, sales growth may necessitate producing higher volumes that render manual filling impractical. A contract packager, for example, may bid on a project that requires production far beyond the capabilities of any human staff. Such an opportunity can make a complete, automated filling line a requirement to fulfill a contract.
 
Decision to automate
If the initial cost was not a factor, most companies would likely prefer an automated filling line to a manual one. Since cost is a factor, the first step is to determine your target production goals. Then assess every step in your line, from where the empty bottles are set up for filling to where the finished bottles are placed in cartons, asking:
  • Does the setup meet our production goals?
  • Can it keep up with anticipated sales volume?
  • Is it holding us back from expanding?
  • How much does it cost to operate?
 
Then determine the top speed and capacity for each operation. With that information, you can design the filling line with the proper combination of manual, semiautomated, and/or fully automated machinery to meet your immediate goals and accommodate future goals. Make a cost comparison to determine the payback period. Depending on the filling line, the payback period is often a few months to a year or two.
 
For example, if you need to fill 2,000 bottles in a five-day work week, that's 400 per day and 50 per hour. Factoring in time for setup, label changes, unplanned stoppages, and other downtime, that's still less than one bottle per minute, which you can usually achieve even when manually unscrambling empty bottles, inserting desiccants and cotton, and capping one at a time. A single worker with some experience may even be able to handle the entire process.
 
If you need to fill 20,000 bottles in the same five-day work week, however, you need to fill 4,000 per day and 500 per hour. That allows about 7 seconds per bottle, which even a team of workers can't achieve with any quality control, and the number of workers needed would be cost-prohibitive. In that scenario, you would need to automate.

 
John Deitz is president at Deitz, Wall, NJ. The company designs and manufactures tamper-evident neck banders, heat tunnels, turntables, conveyors, tablet and capsule counters, desiccant and cotton inserters, and other automated packaging machinery and accessories. Deitz also provides complete filling-line design and installation services.
 
Do you have a question for our experts? Send your questions to pwright@cscpub.com, and we'll have an expert answer them.
January 27, 2020
 
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