The trends for personalisation and customisation, already established within the automotive and food manufacturing sectors, are now also becoming a requirement within the pharmaceutical industry.
This is resulting in smaller batch runs which in turn requires greater levels of flexibility and rapid changeover between different product variants. In addition, other mitigating factors such as an overall shortage of labour, together with the need to consider social distancing between operators within the production environment, means that higher levels of automation are required to deliver the productivity and quality levels needed to meet demand.
German specialist machine manufacturer Bausch+Ströbel has responded to this growing trend towards increasing levels of automation and customisation by introducing the flexible VarioSys production system. This modular and aseptic production system fully automates the filling and sealing of ampoules, syringes and vials in small batch sizes, with the aid of Zimmer Group’s mechatronic gripper systems.
Bausch+Ströbel filling and packaging systems are used worldwide for processing high-quality liquid and powder medications, syringes, vials, cartridges and ampoules, starting with the cleaning and sterilisation operations, through to syringe assembly and labelling.
The VarioSys machine from Bausch+Ströbel has recently been enhanced with the incorporation of a new machine module with additional functionality. This enhanced capability now enables fully automated opening of tubs as well as fully automated opening, de-nesting, filling and loading of ready-to-use (RTU) vials in the nest. The protective film on the tubs is removed using a thermal process. Prior to this operation, they are transported into the corresponding positions by a cleanroom robot, or more specifically a gripper. After the tub is opened, a second gripper removes the RTU vials from the nest and hands them, via a conveyor system, to the next module for further bulk processing.
Zimmer gripper solution for nest handling
Bausch+Ströbel turned to Zimmer Group for collaboration on the nest and tub handling of this special application. A key challenge in this application, in addition to seamless interaction with the robot, concerned the use of these grippers within a cleanroom system. From the outset this of course excluded the use of pneumatic grippers, not only due to issues with exhaust air, but also for reasons relating to space restrictions, therefore a purely mechatronic gripper solution was specified.
(Zimmer E-Gripper technology overcame a series of challenges in this pharmaceutical application)
Due to challenge posed by the cleanroom environment, the grippers had to be designed with special consideration for the specifications of technical cleanliness, as they can come into direct contact with syringes and vials and / or with the nest. Commercially available grippers are not immune to particle transfer and the resulting potential for contamination. Abrasion debris from the gripper mechanism itself can produce unwanted foreign objects. This means they present a particular challenge to designers of cleanliness-sensitive systems. As one of the first design measures, therefore, Bausch+Ströbel chose easily removable and sealed enclosures or sheaths for the grippers to prevent the possibility of particles entering into the process.
The flexibility of the grippers was also of critical importance, as the system itself has a very modular design, meaning the packaging sizes can change at any time. As a result, the GEH6180IL and GEH6040IL gripper variants were identified as being best suited to the tasks at hand. Both of these electric grippers have a large stroke and a servo drive with an integrated controller. The brushless drive technology guarantees not only individual force adjustment, but also control of position and speed. The safety of the system is also an aspect that cannot be overlooked, because most of the items being handled are either fragile glass or plastic. In addition, the grippers also have a mechanical self-locking mechanism, which prevents a vial from falling in the event of a power failure.
The fact that Zimmer Group was also able to respond very quickly to necessary modifications which were identified, such as a lateral connection by means of a flush connector for the GEH6180IL was particularly appreciated by the customer.
A further benefit from the choice of Zimmer Gripper technology is the fact that the grippers have only a single cable outlet, which in itself represents a significant advantage for the restricted space conditions within the cleanroom. In addition, the use of IO-Link within the system made it easy to read specific data, such as the temperature measurement, position and number of cycles.