Automation vs. human errors in pharmaceutical packaging


As the required serialization investment on pharmaceutical production lines is approaching, there is a need to consider if the packaging line will need a more complete update with the same downtime.

Many production lines still rely on manual work in packaging: case packing and palletizing are often done manually in medium to small-scale production. Economic considerations result in different solutions for different functions, depending on the production speed and availability and the price of workforce.

Case-packing, with possible aggregation of serialization, requires a full-time worker to be done manually. If the production line feeds 3 consumer packages per second, a layer of packages in the case (often bundled) can come every 6–20 seconds — the operator needs to be constantly on the spot. Just picking the bundles to the case takes a couple of seconds, but serialization aggregation, with camera verification, takes a couple of additional seconds. There is no extra time — extra personnel or production pauses are required if the operator needs to take a break.

Palletizing, on the other hand, is done at a considerably slower rate, 20 seconds to a minute per case. This has led to palletizing being done in some cases by the production line operator as an extra job, especially as the bundles or cases can be left to accumulate.

As the work is monotonic and repetitive, ergonomic issues of the manual workstation are important.

With all manual work, the question of human error arises

People are not particularly good for monotonic and repetitive work where accuracy is of utmost importance. Human errors are frequently cited as a primary cause of quality issues leading to batch recalls. Automatic verify and reject functions are thus needed, e.g. a camera to inspect the bundles or packages in the case.

Human errors are frequently cited as a primary cause of quality issues leading to batch recalls.

This would be better handled by an automatic case-packer or robot, even though the original investment cost is naturally higher.

With manual work, what is saved in investment, is easily lost in the cost of human labor. With concurrent activities, such as the line operator moving the cases and checking serialization in addition to other line operator duties, the risk of errors rises considerably.

Another question is production security: preventing falsified medicines from reaching the supply chain requires also secure packaging lines where manual product diversion or addition is made impossible. The case of the soft-capsule manufacturer in Western Europe last year, where it seems that an undefined number of foreign capsules had been added manually and deliberately to the production line, serves as a warning of these risks.

Automated packaging, case-packing and palletizing can protect the drugs from deliberate harm, at manufacturer’s site as well as in logistics and repackaging.

The same problems exist where the drugs are applied or used. Medication errors are a major problem in hospitals, when nurses struggle with similar-looking pills they distribute to their patients day and night. Automated medicine cabinets (see Newicon) and barcode readers can be used to prevent wrong medicines being applied or wrong patients being treated. Reducing possibilities of human error reduces also the stress of the overstretched hospital personnel (see an excellent video by GS1).

The investment required to automate your packaging lines may feel high, but increased production efficiency, product safety and security will help pay the investment. We are here to help you!


Iiro Jantunen
TkT, Teknologiajohtaja
Servicepoint Kuopio Oy
+358 44 7868 215
You can comment this
article in LinkedIn Pulse.