By Chris MacKinnon
What do we do with the packaging on the products we buy? We throw them away, right? But if you consider past the idea that it’s “just recyclable material,” it’s evident that packaging plays an essential role. When it comes to the pharmaceutical industry in particular, this couldn’t be closer to the truth.
Fred Hayes, director of technical services with PMMI (Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute), says this is because packaging has to convey information about the product, protect the product, and maintain the quality of the product through the entire distribution chain. But, from a pharmaceutical perspective, packaging’s main function is getting the product to the customer in a quality-based, protected manner.
The Push For Packaging Optimization
According to Hayes, the Europeans started a directive, or law, in the mid-1990s that focused on minimizing the amount of packaging waste. “These days, however,” Hayes notes, “we have variations from the European directive that are focusing on a global effort toward packaging optimization. In 2009, for example, a project was started by an ISO committee [TC 122] with the purpose of writing standards on packaging and the environment. But, rather than focusing on minimizing the packaging and packaging waste, the project is aiming at optimizing packaging. The goal here is to have packaging truly performing its function.”
The pharmaceutical industry has strict packaging requirements and protocols because it deals with drugs that can help or harm people, so more is expected from the packaging machinery in terms of record keeping and the necessary processes to put a packaging machine in operation. Hayes says if you put a little bit too much packaging in a product, you’re going to have more packaging in the waste stream that will have to be recycled. Conversely, if you do not put enough packaging into a product, the entire load (the product and the associated packaging) ends up going through the waste stream. “For example, the manufacturer of a food product reduces the weight of the liner board and medium that makes the corrugated case that hold 24 boxes of a food product,” Hayes explains. “From a sustainability view, this looks good because the food manufacturer is using less corrugated material. However, the case now does not have enough stacking strength to protect the boxes of food stacked on the pallet. The corrugated cases [and in turn the boxes of food] on the bottom half of the pallet are crushed. Now the case, boxes containing the food, and the food all are scrap and go into the waste stream.” Hayes adds that the impact here is pretty severe because you are putting a whole bunch of “stuff” into the waste stream that may not be particularly easy to recycle because you are also scrapping the entire product.
Currently, there is a push from the pharmaceutical companies to packaging machinery builders to produce machinery that can more easily and quickly change from one product to another. Hayes says one of the keys to this involves cleaning the machines. He explains, “I think of a company that went through a two-hour cleaning process in the middle of changing their machinery from one product to another, but by changing the design of the machine and engineering it to be easier to clean, they reduced that time frame to less than a half an hour. That’s the type of change that makes a difference to the bottom line.”
Hayes says if you apply this same process to a pharmaceutical company, they can do much shorter runs and run more products on a given machine per day, as well as decrease their lot sizes, because the change-over is much faster. He comments, “This flexibility in the systems for quicker changeover is particularly more important for the pharmaceutical industry than almost any other industry. Also, because today’s computer systems are getting faster and smarter, packaging machines are able to talk to each other; and I can definitely see this trend continuing well into the future.”
In the recent past, there was the idea that RFID (radio frequency identification) was going to play a major role in the pharmaceutical industry. While there have been some very successful RFID implementations in the medical field (mainly in asset tracking), there are still some obstacles.
“There was a vision at one time,” Hayes explains, “that we were going to track medicine from the pharmacy to the patient. But, about 18+ months ago there were a couple of studies done [in the Netherlands and Japan] that revealed how some RFID readers were interfering with the operation of the electronics of medical dispensing units. I can see how RFID can be useful from the drug company to the pharmaceutical company to the back door of the hospital, but when you think about RFID on the patient floor, 2-D bar codes are far more effective.”
Hayes says, in his opinion, this is because 2-D technology is relatively inexpensive, already exists, and is a proven technology. “I can see 2-D bar code technology moving forward past the current RFID movement because of these studies,” he says.
According to Tom Egan, VP of industry services with PMMI, the issues facing processing and packaging operations aren’t tied to a recession or economic recovery. Egan says product safety will always be priority, and trends such as sustainability, health and wellness, and convenience options are “top of mind for consumers,” whether the products are foods or pharmaceuticals. Egan notes, “For the pharmaceutical manufacturers, however, there are added challenges stemming from the market environment and the pressures of competitive pricing.”
For this and other reasons, Egan says the upcoming PACK EXPO International 2010 (Oct. 31 to Nov. 3 in Chicago) is an event that pharmaceutical and biotech packaging manufacturers will want to attend. He comments, “PACK EXPO is the place to find critical solutions to the important issues that pharmaceutical manufacturers face, including technologies that increase efficiency and facilitate shorter production runs.”
Egan says companies will continue to seek “better, smarter, and faster” technologies as we start moving into 2011, and PACK EXPO can help. “By addressing the entire production supply chain,” Egan explains, “from package design to processing to packaging operations, in a single location, the show will be a cost- and time-saving resource to brand owners from around the world.”
One key component of this year’s PACK EXPO is “The Brand Zone.” Egan explains, “The special exhibit area will concentrate on innovative containers and materials that marketers, brand managers, and designers can use to make their products stand out on the shelf and to enhance convenience and functionality.” He says special features within “The Brand Zone” will draw attention to trends of the future.
Hayes adds, “PACK EXPO is the place to find serialization and its complementary technologies. Vision systems, which allow the manufacturer’s machinery to read the codes; the technology to apply the codes to a package; and covert and overt labeling to verify product authenticity — I expect these would be of highest interest to readers of Life Science Leader.”
In the end, though, Hayes says the value of PACK EXPO is never about just one thing. The technologies, innovations, and networking opportunities the event provides are essential to your success in the marketplace.
“There’s no doubt that the pharmaceutical packaging industry is currently more flexible and adaptable than it ever was,” states Hayes. “When you consider the demographics of the United States alone, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and in turn pharmaceutical packaging, is certainly going to grow. As companies find their footing in the ‘new economy,’ improving efficiencies by investing in innovative technologies, shorter runs, and more competitive manufacturing operations will be key to success.”