Friday, February 7, 2014

Keeping Track

In PMMI’s recently released “2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment,” the authors noted that:

Leading the way for innovative uses of [robotic] vision sensor technology are pharmaceutical manufacturers, who are applying the technology to help with serialization. During the past decade, the pharmaceutical industry has been working to implement item-level serialization and e-Pedigree data transfer for end-to-end tracking and tracing capabilities - starting from when the product comes off the packaging line to when it reaches a merchant.(1)

The study points out that while only about half of all robotics installations currently include vision technology, that number is expected to increase significantly over the next five years. (2) As a packaging machinery manufacturer for the pharmaceutical industry and a FANUC America robotics integrator, ESS has already seen a marked increase in interest for these types of systems. Beyond the ergonomic advantages of reducing repetitive motion for human workers, robots also provide error-proof inspection and aggregation in track & trace serialization applications.

Robotic case packers and robotic pallet cells easily integrate with track & trace systems from OEM suppliers. Faced with impending track & trace compliance mandates, pharmaceutical manufacturers are turning to integrators like ESS to provide vision-enabled track & trace serialization for packaging lines. These packaging systems integrate scanners, cameras, and PC-based software, supplied by the track & trace OEM, to read the unique aggregate code on each unit they manufacture and send that information to a track & trace software package. In a robotic case packing application, a robot facilitates the process by holding an aggregated pack pattern over a vision inspection system to verify the coded units before loading them in the case. Once the aggregation is verified and the units case packed, the track & trace system may also have the capability to print a label that itemizes the contents of a case.
Robotic Case Packer With Integrated Vision Inspection for Track & Trace Serialization
Track & trace robotic pallet cells work in a similar fashion. The case labels printed by the track & trace system may include a unique code for the case as well as information about the case contents. Or alternately, the unique code may be applied on a separate label. In either case, this unique code can also be vision-inspected while the case is conveyed to the robotic pallet cell, or the robot could be programmed to pick the case and hold it up to a vision inspection system prior to palletizing. The track & trace software can also keep track of the pallet’s contents as cases are loaded, and a pallet labeler can be integrated to print and apply the pallet aggregation information.

The recent passage of the federal Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA, H.R. 3204) has given pharmaceutical manufacturers a clear direction forward regarding the implementation of track & trace serialization in their manufacturing and packaging processes. Many pharmaceutical manufacturers, anticipating the need to comply with California’s now superseded e-Pedigree laws, have already begun to specify, purchase, and install robotic, automated track & trace packaging solutions. Experienced packaging machinery OEMs and integrators offer an excellent resource to pharmaceutical manufacturers, providing insight and practical solutions for meeting these emerging drug packaging standards. 

(1)  PMMI. (February 2014) “2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment,” page 8.
(2) Ibid.