A Dose of Pharm Insight

August 9, 2021

Pharmaceutical and small-format finishing is a robust and specialized category that can be very profitable to serve. However, until recently the category was in dire need of a technology overhaul to remove labor from the process, increase quality and security, reduce make-ready times and increase production and changeover speeds. 

For example, legacy miniature folding systems that are around today can date back as far as the 1990s with manual operator functions and four- to 12-hour machine setups for complicated work. That’s fine for longer-run and repeat jobs, but for today’s shorter-run jobs, manual machines are an obstacle to productivity. Not to mention the immense challenge of finding and retaining skilled operators to set up and run the work. On the output side, machines are often run at speeds of only 5,000 pieces per hour due solely to the physical limitation of the operators stacking material by hand.

MBO America recently released a case study on the miniature folding category, sharing that a few years back H+H GmbH embarked on a journey to develop the miniature folding “model of the future,” with the goal of removing the artful skill from the job through automation, and increasing the productivity of a single machine while requiring less than a full operator to run it without fatigue on a long shift. Without spoiling it for you, let’s just say they achieved their goal. As it turns out, the drive for automation and disruptive technology in the small format category is one that several other manufacturers have adopted as well—and I think you’ll be very impressed with what’s available in the space.

Security is key.

One of the most critical aspects of taking on pharmaceutical work is meeting the strict security, compliance and quality requirements—which adds to the risk, but increases the reward of doing the work.

“There are industry regulations that require print accuracy as well as an accurate count of the number of pieces that are produced, particularly in the packaging, pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries,” said Don Dubuque of Standard Finishing Systems. “To meet these standards, the printed image on both sides of the sheet is now typically verified via a top and bottom reading camera on the folder, and a unique bar code is assigned to each sheet and tracked via barcode scanner. The barcode scanning and camera systems provide an audit trail of every piece that has been processed through the folder. The audit trail can be used to produce reports that validate compliance with industry standards.”  

Dubuque is referencing folding machines, but the security requirements extend into every step of the process—from folding to gluing, tabbing, feeding, packing and box-making—and we’ll see this consistent focus on quality and security across all of the machines in this article.

Security is a top priority and a selling point in the pharmaceutical industry, so whether you’re dipping your toe in the water or diving straight into this category of work, be sure your operation is up to the task.

Flottman Company of Kentucky proudly advertises on their website: “Our facility is under surveillance 24/7, and all entrances and exits are key-code required. Electronic proofing, physical counts and precision electronic reconciliation are all features of our security measures.” 

Next-Level Pharmaceutical Finishing Equipment

Folding for pharmaceuticals has a special set of challenges, including high panel counts, product thickness, lightweight stock requirements, varied sheet sizes and the difficulty of producing and managing very small pieces. In the past, a fleet of folders, each customized to a segment of the fold requirements, was needed to handle the many different requirements of a job. Today, the combination of automation, auto-gap settings, score positioning and a high number of fold plates means that most folds can be accommodated with just one or two system configurations.

Can standard format equipment be modified to perform pharmaceutical finishing work?

“Traditional folders will usually not fit the bill for pharmaceutical, insert and outsert folding,” Dubuque said. “The size of the fold rollers and the transfer points in the folder and in delivery won’t accommodate the smaller-sized fold panels required in this market space. Additionally, traditional folders generally can’t handle the product thickness or provide enough fold plates to produce many of the folds required, especially for pharma applications.”  

So, if you’re getting into the category, you’ll likely need some new equipment, but the good news is that these machines are not just for pharmaceutical work—they can also be used to create materials for cosmetics, electronics, product warranty information, consumer warnings, pocket-sized maps and instructions. Capabilities in this category are also a pretty powerful differentiator—if your competitors can’t do it, your work can’t be commoditized.

A lot is happening in miniature folding this year, and here’s a look at some of the most exciting offerings in the category.

G&K-VIJUK 24-Plate GUK FA53 Folder

This modular triple knife outsert system has 24 plates, and can fold outserts with up to 350 panels on lightweight pharmaceutical stock. The machine boasts intelligent quality control features, touch screen operation and an array of features and accessories—including heavy-duty pressing units, a vertical stacking delivery unit, feeders, tabbers, glue verification systems and camera systems.

Heidelberg Stahlfolder Extended Pharma Solution

Stahl introduced their first fully-automated folding solution focused exclusively on pharmaceutical and small insert applications. The solution features the integration of an automated Stahlfolder TH 56 small format buckle plate folder with at least eight plates in the first unit, and eight in the second unit—and when combined with an inline parallel knife unit, a belt labeler, plus the delivery, the result is an automated solution that reduces make ready times from hours to minutes. 

Heidelberg TH56Pharma F51

H+H M9 Miniature Folding Machine for Inserts

H+H executed a radical redesign/re-engineering of their M9 Miniature Folding Machine to fit the evolving demands of the small insert and pharmaceutical industry. The M9 has up to 24 automated buckle plates and automated fold rollers, plus their highest-level M1 Advanced control system, automatic quality check and rejection, and the exclusive MBO slitter shaft cassette system. The automated M9 can make ready a 16-plate parallel fold in 10 minutes. This machine can be ordered as a manual or automated model, and can be optionally expanded with a wide variety of additional components for maximum flexibility and customization. 

H+H S 45 Miniature Folder 

This versatile folding machine has a common configuration of eight plates in the first unit and four plates in the second unit, which is designed to fit 90% of the pharmaceutical insert and small insert market. The machine is modular and can be scaled to include glue units, knife fold and pressing units and various deliveries, and is positioned as an economical entry point into small insert production.

Horizon AF-406F Small-Format Folder

The Standard Horizon AF-406F is a fully-automated small format folder that provides ease of use and application flexibility for the small insert and pharmaceutical markets. The six-buckle plate folder with pile feed and suction head has 17 pre-set fold patterns and can perform folds down to .79. inches. An optional six-buckle second unit can be added in line or cross-wise. For production efficiency, 200 custom jobs can be stored in memory for easy recall and automated make-ready in seconds.

Standard AF406F Folder

Packing and Stacking

The management of high volumes of small-format product coming out the end of a machine is one of the biggest obstacles to productivity. Here are two compelling solutions for increasing productivity and quality in the output and transfer of materials.

G&K-Vijuk PPM Auto Stacker

This modular Auto-Stacker attaches to outsert systems and miniature folding units. The machine automatically collects miniature folded materials into trays, compresses them, and moves them into the delivery area, while moving the next tray into place without interruption. Optional quality control add-ons include the two-camera CM Inspection Station, the CTM Coding/Serializing & Fold Inspection Station for tracking and tracing, a Glue Verification System, and the Baumer hhs Xcam System for content verification.

MBO SmartPack100 Pharma Insert/Outsert Automated Tray Packer

The MBO SmartPack100 automates the exit end of pharmaceutical production lines for any legacy or brand machine. The unit places pharma products into trays, while removing the manual steps of quality control and sorting of good and bad product. The operator only loads paper and trays into the machine and removes filled trays. According to MBO, the productivity of existing machines can be upgraded 50% to 100% just by adding the packer and removing the older manual delivery units. 

MBO Smart Pack100

Packaging and Gluing

The opportunity and excitement in pharmaceutical finishing doesn’t stop at folding—and the opportunities abound for printers of all sizes. 

“Large printers don’t want to break down their larger in-line folder gluers for the short- to medium-sized carton runs," said Kevin Moll of B&R Moll.  "This is a great opportunity for the small- and medium-sized printers to go after this business where there is more profit in the runs.

“In the folding carton pharma world, there is a larger opportunity in the cannabis market. There are so many designs and layouts, but the runs tend to be short. Short folder gluer changeover times make today’s machines more desirable in this short-run world. It leads to more jobs being run in a day with a single operator, which ultimately has a faster ROI.”

Here are some outstanding technologies to consider for pharmaceutical box-making and gluing operations.

Bobst EXPERTFOLD 50 | 80 | 110 Folder Gluer + ACCUBRAILLE + ACCUCHECK

This extremely versatile folder-gluer allows you to produce an impressive number of box styles in a wide range of materials at speeds of up to 450 meters (1,476 feet) per minute. Designed for speed, automation and ease of operation, the EXPERTFOLD delivers striking productivity and quality, and can simultaneously carry out other in-line processes for maximum efficiency. For the pharmaceutical and cosmetic markets, combine with the ACCUCHECK in-line quality control system for zero-fault packaging, and ACCUBRAILLE for high-speed Braille (and images, letters, numbers) embossing. 


B&R Moll Vantage 720/920 In-Line Folder/Gluer

The B&R Moll Vantage Machine is an in-line folder/gluer ideally suited for producing straight-line boxes, boxes with partitions, and auto-bottom boxes at speeds of over 20,000 pieces per hour. The machine can meet pharmaceutical industry demands with optional features such as vacuum assist, servo placers for pharmaceutical inserts, documents, labels and cards, RFID/sensormatic tags, barcode readers, adhesive verification, camera verification, window patching, Velcro application and ink-jet printing.

NJM AUTOSERT Model 277 SIDESERT & TOPSERT Outsert Applicators

This hot melt glue outsert applicator for pharmaceutical labeling applies outserts in a wide range of sizes and thicknesses—including double and triple thickness—at very high speeds. A new outsert carton magazine feeder comes standard on the TOPSERT model, and is optional on the SIDESERT. The machine features a new rotating three-arm pick-and-place system, a small footprint and optional inspection and rejection system. It can be integrated with an NJM AUTOCOLT labeler and with any third-party conveyor.

Pharma Lingo

Inserts – a document included in the package of a medication

Outserts – general term for folded material attached to the bottle

Sidesert – an outsert glued to the side of the bottle

Topsert/Capsert – an outsert glued to the top of the bottle

Twinsert – two individual outserts glued together (aka: bundling)

Fold-out Label – an expanded content label with folded panels

Pillow Folding – a thick and fluffy insert with many folds, printed on very light stock

Pharma Acronyms

PI – Physician Inserts 

PPI – Patient Package Inserts 

IFU – Instructions for Use

DFU – Directions for Use

RTA – Right Turn Angle Outserts 

ECL – Expanded Content Label