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US equipment helps pack pills.

Small machine shops often look for a niche, a market area where they can excel at providing a specialized product. The niches John Aylward finds are perhaps a little more unusual than most.

Mr Aylward started out in the early 1970s producing specialty equipment for the wallcovering industry. Then he saw a 1970s phenomenon, an air hockey game, in action. The game provided the inspiration for a new way of packaging pharmaceuticals--and a new market for Aylward Enterprises Inc.

"It seemed simple enough that if a current of air could be used so efficiently to move a hockey puck around, the same concept could be used in filling tablets and capsules into a blister pack," Mr Aylward says. The thermoformed or cold-formed blister packs are preferred by pharmaceutical manufacturers for packaging over-the-counter capsules, tablets, and caplets, as well as for samples of prescription drugs.

Like an air hockey table, the first Aylward Feed System used air to gently guide the pills into position in the blister packs. The machine was easy to use and efficient, and many of the largest pharmaceutical producers in the world were customers. Changing pharmaceutical industry regulations and a concern about dust in the air feed system, however, soon forced Mr Aylward to come up with another design.

The second-generation system uses an orienting plate to align the tablets, capsules, or caplets into staging chutes. A signal from the camshaft of the packaging machine causes dispensing pins to move in and out, aligning the tablets and releasing them one at a time into the blister cavities.

The dispensing method is extremely accurate and uses no air, eliminating the risk of dust contamination. The patented system can handle both thermoformed and the more difficult-to-fill cold-formed packs and feed product of any shape and various sizes at rates up to 150 cycles a minute. Changeover time for new packaging configurations is five minutes. The machines, which cost $50,000 to $100,000 each, are used by such pharmaceutical giants as Bristol-Myers Squibb, The Upjohn Co, and Miles Inc.

As you might imagine, reliably feeding all those small pills into the blister packs requires a precision machine. And, given the range of pharmaceutical product sizes, shapes, 33 and types, each machine is essentially a custom job, says Aylward manufacturing manager Frank Powers. "Our work here is totally custom. There are no two feeders alike. The feeder parts are designed around product and pattern, and new CNC programs must be made for each feeder part."

The need for fast, flexible programming is one reason Aylward chose CNC equipment from Hurco Cos Inc, Indianapolis, IN. Hurco's Ultimax control provides conversational programming and rapid program formatting.

Mr Powers cites an example of the time savings possible using the 32-bit Ultimax control: "When I custom program the main part of the feeder, which is the drop chute, it takes approximately 40 minutes with Ultimax versus three to four days if it were done using G-code," he says.

Mr Aylward likes the ease with which operators can learn to program the machines. "I found it extremely easy to learn, program, and operate. And with apprentice training at our local community college coupled with Hurco in-house training, I've had operators ready to build our machines in a matter of days," he says.

The Aylward machine shop now includes six Hurco knee mills, a BMC-40 vertical machining center, and a BMC-20 VMC with a 10,000-rpm spindle.

For information from Hurco Cos Inc, Indianapolis, IN, circle 319.
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Title Annotation:Manufacturing Solutions
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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