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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

Open for Business

A machine-controlled system may be thought of as a computer with its intelligence or processing power spread around the production machinery, rather than all in one place. The computer sends digital signals along wires to all the different parts of the machinery, telling them precisely when to stop and when to start. Similarly, the components send signals back to the computer to say what they have done.

The computer collects all this incoming data and instantly processes it into an overall picture of the machinery’s performance; it is then free to send out more signals, telling the machinery what to do next. This is analogous to the human brain, which takes in signals from the senses and calculates appropriate follow-up actions.

Component Compatability

Turning to a different – but relevant – subject, readers old enough to remember the very early days of home computing will recall the issue of compatibility. Back then, computers and peripherals of different makes could not be connected together; everything had to come from the same manufacturer. This was because each maker used a different signal communication language or protocol.

Over time, however, protocol agreements were reached and compatibility improved. By the mid- 1990s, most of the issues had been resolved and, as a result, the capabilities of small computers rose markedly – from being domestic novelties, they became an indispensible workhorse of industry and commerce.

Until fairly recently, control systems engineers faced a similar problem of component compatibility; they often found that decisions made during the initial building of the machinery (possibly years earlier) had locked them into a single maker (or small group of makers) of control equipment. Thus, spares, repairs and maintenance were restricted, as was the ability to extend, develop and adapt machinery to meet evolving market needs.

Resolving this dilemma for industrial control systems has proved much harder than in the home computer market, because the plant and its machinery is far more expensive, is in constant use, and has to perform to an incredibly high standard.

Protocol Agreements

To rectify this situation, groups of control equipment manufacturers have got together and, since the turn of the millennium, have been working towards protocol agreements. It is a complicated business – and therefore a long and difficult task – but collaboration is proving key to overcoming the issues involved. The CC-Link Partners Association, for instance, now has over 2,100 members worldwide – all committed to improving compatibility of industrial control equipment.

CC-Link is the protocol they have chosen to standardise on. It was developed in Japan in the 1990s by Mitsubishi Electric, a global leader in automation. In 2000, the network became a fully open technology any company could develop products for.

With an open communications protocol, control systems engineers are able to use best-in-class products to build pharmaceutical production equipment. Initially, this means that designs – and, thus, performance – can be optimised, but perhaps more importantly it also makes long-term ownership and operation cheaper and more efficient.

Potentially, there are major savings to be realised in easier and faster maintenance and repairs, reduced spares holding, and a number of other areas. It is also simpler to enlarge a machine should production volumes need to be increased. Furthermore, it is easier to adapt a machine to new production demands – for example, to speed it up if better equipment becomes available, to upgrade it with robots and vision systems, or to add extra functions. Integrating different machines into multi-function systems, so that more and more processes are brought together under common control, also becomes a simpler process.

Which Wire?

Conventionally, in a control system each piece of equipment is connected to the controller by a signal cable or wire. This sounds straightforward, but if a machine has a great many components, the amount of wiring soon builds up and it becomes painfully difficult to tell which wire is serving which component. Simply picking your way through the wiring can add considerable time to maintenance and/or development projects, while the possibility of misconnecting one or more cables also increases.

Open networks offer a solution to this by allowing different formats for the wiring. Perhaps the most popular wiring format is one which resembles the ring main that delivers electricity to all the power sockets around a house. A main cable is laid around the whole machine and each component is connected to the main cable, simplifying the wiring dramatically.

Technical Details

However, there is a technical issue to be aware of here, in that every signal sent by the controller over the main cable has to be delivered to the correct component. Similarly, when the controller receives a returning signal, it has to be able to determine which component it came from.

In order to overcome this, each signal is topped and tailed with an ‘address’, meaning the name and location of the component it relates to, to form a ‘signal packet’. The components are set up so they reject all signals that do not start with their own unique address.

There is another small but important detail. In high-speed manufacturing and packaging machinery, instructions often have to be processed in fractions of a millisecond in order to keep everything operating in the correct sequence. While this would be phenomenally difficult for the human mind, it is actually fairly simple for a well-designed control system.

This timing issue is called ‘determinism’. It is not a problem in conventional data processing tasks, such as payroll, where the timing of processes has a relatively large degree of flexibility, and is probably measured in seconds rather than milliseconds. For machinery, however, it is crucial that processes happen exactly as planned, or else machine and product damage can occur.

Traceability Records

Traceability is critically important in the pharma industry, and open communication and control networks are able to enhance this function. In short, traceability means maintaining detailed records of production, distribution, ingredients and so on, so that any problem can be traced back to its cause. A prerequisite of this is that an enormous amount of data has to be collected, sorted into a logical order, and stored for a relatively long period of time.

Many of the control system signals being used to run production machinery are, in fact, the raw data for the manufacturing part of traceability records. Therefore, a control system used in a pharmaceutical plant can perform two functions at once: controlling the production machinery and preparing the traceability records.

Generally, this information would be processed in real time by a dedicated computer within the control system to create more easily understood technical reports. These reports can then be further processed to provide management reports for commercial and operational purposes.

Open Networks

Control systems engineering is fundamentally important to pharma manufacture and packaging. Complex, high-performance production machines need a level of precision control that can only be achieved with a bespoke, high-tech control system. In addition to this, vast amounts of production data need to be collected and analysed to provide management reports in real time and to create traceability records.

Supporting technology for control engineering is becoming evermore powerful. One of the most exciting advances of recent years has been the emergence of open networks, which allow systems design to be simplified, and enable easy reconfiguration and development of production machinery. Over the coming years, open networks will be seen as a significant element in reducing the cost of ownership of pharmaceutical production plants.

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John Browett, General Manager of the CC-Link Partner Association Europe, began his career in Japan, with the launch of key industry firsts such as the introduction of ‘compact’ and ‘micro’ programmable logic controllers. This led him to the US, where he managed wide-ranging, complex automation product lines. John’s subsequent move back to Europe involved delivering key marketing messages to the widely varied markets, cultures and languages of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. His overall responsibility today is to formulate and execute strategies for promoting the open automation network architecture, CC-Link.
John Browett
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