Strategic moves by a pair of German pharmaceutical packaging giants are shedding light on drug packaging trends related to bottles vs. blisters and glass vs. plastic syringes. And such trends are worth watching for a global pharma packaging sector that Freedonia Group projects will grow by 6.5 percent annually to more than $101 billion in 2019.
Uhlmann Group, long established as a king of blister packaging machinery, at the recent Pack Expo Las Vegas trade show was promoting, of all things, a compact bottle-filling machine – or “modular Integrated Bottle Packaging Center,” dubbed the IBC 120 – for solid-dose products.
And separately, Gerresheimer Group – traditionally best known as a maker of glass containers for the pharma and cosmetics sectors – continues to push strongly into plastics, particularly cyclic olefin polymers (COP) for prefillable syringes.
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Neither Uhlmann’s interest in bottles nor Gerresheimer’s in plastics packaging is new, of course, but their increased emphasis on what, for them, is not traditional technology, is noteworthy and reflects some interesting trends in their respective sectors.
Uhlmann’s U.S. arm – Uhlmann Packaging Systems LP in Towaco, N.J. – does business in the one major developed market that favors pill bottles over flexible blister packaging for pharmaceuticals. Estimates place the split in the U.S. for pharma packaging at roughly 80 percent bottles and 20 percent blister.
Sabri Demirel is sales manager for the U.S. firm. He declares that Uhlmann, which has supplied equipment to the pharma industry for more than 65 years, is still the blister king, but noted that there is also potential in the bottle sector. He said in a recent phone interview that when Uhlmann looks at the Rx bottle packaging industry, it sees a business that has changed little in the past 40-50 years – it’s machine conveyor after machine conveyor, nothing more, nothing less.
“We looked at it and said, ‘There must be better ways of doing this.’ So we developed an integrated system, because it’s all about efficiency and cleanability these days.”
Uhlmann’s new IBC 120 – which can package small- to medium-sized batches at a rate of up to 150 bottles, or 24,000 tablets or capsules, per minute – has no conveyors. It processes round, rectangular and oval bottles measuring 45-200 millimeters in height and 25-125 mm in diameter, and in between batches, can be reset to a different bottle diameter in just six minutes. Its monoblock design also is very compact, at barely five meters in length.
The IBC 120 integrates the most important functions related to packaging solid doses in a bottle, according to Demirel. It fills the product, as well as the dessicant and the cotton, then closes the cap and releases the bottle. It’s 100 percent secure, he said, and also is easier to clean and simpler for machine operators to learn how to operate. This is Uhlmann’s second bottling machine, after the IBC 240, a continuous packaging system that can process 240 bottles, or 42,000 tablets or capsules, a minute.
“For well over 25 years, experts and market watchers predicted the shift from rigid (bottles) to flexible (blister) packaging,” notes Stephen Ervin, a senior consultant with Wilmington, Del.-based Montesino Associates. “To date, bottles continue to be the preferred package for ethical medicines dispensed as oral solids (tablets and capsules) in the U.S. Speculation continues that someday the shift will happen, Ervin said, but so far, “neither regulators nor the drive for more compliant packaging have ‘tipped’ that situation toward blisters.”
Ervin also brings up another key issue – that of original packaging. “Prescription drugs packaged in bottles are typically repackaged two to four times before finally reaching the consumer’s hand,” he said – think about the pharmacist counting pills into an amber vial at your favorite drug store. “Non-U.S. markets remain amazed that the United States does not, for supply safety concerns, insist on ‘original packaging.’ While historically the U.S. supply chain has proven to be secure, original packaging does seem to offer a more robust system.”
Gerresheimer, on the other hand, despite its strong glass heritage, is busy touting high-end COP plastic syringes and vials, in part due to the rise in biotechnologically derived drugs. These bio-based pharmaceuticals are some of the most expensive drugs on the market and are highly susceptible to external influences. That makes COP, which is more chemically inert than glass, a desirable primary package. Additionally, COP offers excellent barrier properties, glass-like transparency and superior resistance to breakage.
Tara Bryce, Houston-based sales and business development manager for Gerresheimer’s Medical Systems Division, acknowledged that there are new and changing needs among consumers, and it’s important for firms such as hers to explore new options as regards materials and applications.
“Bio is huge, and due to the sensitivity of bio-based drugs, we’ve found that maybe you do need the plastic packaging. For bio-logics, protein aggregation – which may or may not be affected by siliconization in syringes – is a big concern. And of course, the there are the issues of glass particulates, delamination and breakage. This is especially of concern in the auto-injector world, where high forces are required to move viscous drugs into the body quickly and easily.”
Regardless of the factors, Bryce said, “We’d prefer to be on the leading edge, helping to drive the train of new development”.
Another important product that is filled into COP syringes is hyaluronic acid, a key constituent of human tissue that performs many different functions. It is used in opthalmics, orthopedics and in cosmetic treatments.
Gerresheimer, which has a lot of plastic injection molding experience, also notes that one can achieve more exact tolerances via injection molding than by the free-forming process used to make glass syringes. Exact geometries are particularly vital if the syringe is to be used in an auto-injector or something similar. And such geometries also help to reduce the amount of (expensive) drug residue that is left inside the syringe after use.
As for the glass vs. plastic debate, Ervin states: “Montesino continues to find high-end polymers and plastics that offer superior properties to glass, with less risk of breakage. We expect to see more of this as biotechnology continues to scale in the world of medicines.”
And so the competition amongst materials and processes in the pharma packaging sector remains as hot as the industry itself.
Global demand for primary pharmaceutical containers, Freedonia estimates, will expand 6.5 percent per year, to more than $64 billion in 2019. Prefillable syringes and parenteral vials will see above-average growth as new injectable therapies developed through biotechnology and other advanced life sciences are introduced into the marketplace. And that will keep firms such as Uhlmann and Gerresheimer, as well as all their competitors, very much on their toes.
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