Transforming a Legacy Production Line Through Custom Automation
Maintaining production for high-volume, low-cost legacy products is a challenge. To remain profitable, manufacturing facilities face pressure to streamline amid difficulty staffing. Read on to discover how one facility breathed new life into an aging production line with custom automation that unlocked new efficiency and higher output with fewer operators.
- Multinational healthcare product company
- $40B global annual revenue
- 95,000 employees
Manufacturing facility, southeastern US
By the Numbers
Reduction in staffing
Faster line speed
Unique products on 1 automated line
Based in the southeastern United States, this manufacturing facility produces many legacy over the counter (OTC) pharmaceutical products. These brands are household names belonging to the product line of a large multinational healthcare company. As older products, their volumes are settled, and some may eventually be phased out of production.
It’s not just the products that face an uncertain future. As markets change and manufacturing adapts, facilities like these across the world are being consolidated and shut down. When they are, industrialized communities feel the pinch. This plant wanted to take proactive steps to avert this outcome.
Under pressure to streamline production and remain profitable, this facility looked for a solution to the complexities of its production challenges, including automation for a line that packaged an array of pouch and tube products with multiple legacy configurations.
Cost efficiency was a major consideration in any production investment. So was staffing. Current production required eight people per shift, for a total of 24 people to keep the line running daily. With difficulty recruiting and retaining enough operators, the facility had to cut production volume, which affected profitability.
Production complexity like variable carton sizes and an old cartoner created obstacles to automation. How could the facility breathe new life into an old line with a project budget that would yield return on investment?
Problems to Solve
- Staffing shortages
- Poor line optimization
- Multiple product configurations
- Variable per-minute product speeds
- Legacy cartoner technology
- Cost efficiency
Facility leadership recognized the plant could make aging but still-valuable products at a more efficient rate with the right investment in automation—and the right partner to tackle line-specific complexity.
The sheer number of products moving through the line ruled out simple solutions, so custom automation would be needed. There were both pouches and tubes moving through the line, with configurations ranging from one to six ounces and, in the case of some products, up to five different versions in a single product line. To add complexity, the line was using a hand cartoner, and there was no standard carton size to accommodate all products. Each carton differed by a quarter inch.
Product run speed varied, too, from 60 products per minute to as many as 360 products per minute. To maximize efficiency, plant managers wanted operators to be able to walk away from the line, so an infeed needed to be able to hold 15 minutes of product at a time.
Addressing these challenges and overcoming the constraints of the production environment demanded creativity in developing custom automation. The PharmaMed team visited the facility and evaluated how the line ran. With these insights, the lead engineer built a 3D model and a CAD presentation that enabled plant decision-makers to visualize the solution and see that it was possible within the budget, staffing, and line speed constraints.
Technical Details in Brief
The custom automation combined proven, existing technologies in new ways to create a pouch and tube feeder:
- Designed to run continuously
- Created to accommodate multiple product configurations and slight package size variations
- Designed with dual robotics to accomplish the required product run speed
- Built with belt drive, indexing, and linear motion systems
- Incorporating a Keyence camera system as a failsafe for product inspection
- With an infeed designed to hold 15 minutes of product for a range of run speeds
The PharmaMed team collaborated closely with plant decision-makers and operations staff to refine, build, and test the custom automation project, including planning for a same-day changeover installation that would minimize disruption.
Reduced staffing from 24 to 6
Continuous line operation now requires 75% fewer staff to operate, which also reduces staff time in hiring and onboarding while preserving profitable production volumes.
Improved line speed by 20%.
From the first day, the machine will run the line 20% faster than current processes
Addressed the bottom line
With investment in automation, plant leadership is bringing the facility’s capabilities and efficiency into the future—preserving the important role the facility plays in the community’s and region’s economy.
We’re a team of passionate engineers and project managers with extensive experience in industrial automation and production environments. We love tackling the unsolvable problems—the ones that others are afraid to touch. Whether we’re designing a new custom solution or delivering one of our standard products, we’re committed to your success above all else.