Reliable plastic pallets: The answer to your automation needs

Jim Hardisty, Managing Director of Goplasticpallets.com, explains the crucial role that plastic pallets play in maintaining a smooth, hygienic and efficient production line in today’s increasingly automated laboratory environments

The use of automation and robotics in the pharmaceutical industry is increasing rapidly. According to a new study by The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, “Robotics 2019: Innovation to Implementation,” the deployment of robotics in North America in the life sciences/pharma segment reported a 31.3% increase in units shipped from 2017–2018.

Across Europe too, as pharmaceutical manufacturers strive to remain competitive, automation initiatives are being seen as a means to stimulate economic growth.

The pharmaceutical industry produces millions of tablets each week, all of which must be carefully scrutinised before being packed and shipped to distributors. Most pharmaceutical packaging systems use automation to manage bottle orientation, capping, labelling and collation systems. Automating packaging processes also requires a system that monitors the operation at a supervisory level, checking for fallen bottles and low-level supplies.

Considering automation

When considering the introduction of any level of automation in a pharmaceutical laboratory, it is important to look for a solution that integrates holistically with the whole of the operation. Clearly defining the objectives for the project and the tasks to be automated are is essential. Equally important is to consider how you want humans to engage and interact with the equipment.

In addition to defining the scientific process used in a new system, identifying the handling requirements, such as how to move something from point A to point B is also key. This means thinking about not only the type of automation that might be best suited to your needs but also how your products are moved through the supply chain.

Pallet choice

Pallets are the single most ubiquitous component in the supply chain — the standard for handling and moving products from one location to another. Pallets play a vital role in the pharmaceutical supply chain, both in the production area and for packaging and distribution. But one size does not fit all. Before investing in pallets for your operation, it’s paramount that you consider exactly where and how they will be used.

For laboratory and cleanroom environments, for instance, there is only one viable option: hygienic plastic pallets. Manufactured from the highest food grade virgin HDPE, our hygienic pallets have smooth, sealed surfaces and are fully compliant with EU safety legislation.

Jim Hardisty, Managing Director of Goplasticpalletscom

Free from joints, slots and other cavities, they have been specially designed to prevent the accumulation of dirt and dust, ensuring optimum hygiene conditions are maintained as they transit through the area. All laboratory environments that employ staff are at risk of human error from time to time. Using hygienic plastic pallets with completely closed surfaces means that, should a tablet accidentally get dropped, it can be easily identified as there are no holes or crevices where it can get trapped.

However, the benefits of using plastic pallets go far beyond the laboratory environment alone. If your pharmaceutical packing area uses any level of automation — whether roller conveyors, sortation equipment or robotic automation — then plastic pallets have considerable advantages compared with alternatives.

Pallets for automation

Automated handling systems are not invincible and can be disrupted. The most common cause of disruption is the use of wooden pallets to move goods around. In a highly automated packaging area, this disruption can result in lengthy delays, missed shipments and a huge cost to businesses.

Wooden pallets face issues of inconsistency; as they are not uniform in size and shape, even small inconsistencies can result in a wooden pallet jamming and causing untold damage. Wooden pallets subjected to frequent use are susceptible to wear and tear, which might be a loose slat or broken nail, for example.

Either way, disruption is likely to occur, even in operations that have the most stringent inspection processes in place. There’s also the problem of contamination with wooden pallets; they are absorbent, so take in moisture where bacteria can harbour and grow (and, in a worst-case scenario, contaminate the goods loaded on them).

A typical wooden pallet is, therefore, a weak link in the automated process. The obvious solution is to adopt a platform that is durable, totally consistent, does not contain nails or fasteners and is moisture resistant. Plastic pallets perfectly complement automated handling systems and, in our experience of supplying the pharmaceutical industry, they provide a reliable asset for all types of applications.

The advantages of plastic pallets compared with wood are plentiful, as follows:

  • consistency: plastic pallets are 100% size and strength consistent; their uniform weight and deck can support loads across the whole span of the product, reducing the chance of products shifting
  • durability: their strength is unrivalled when compared with wood, plus heavy duty varieties can also withstand frequent repeated use in rigorous, closed loop scenarios
  • hygienic: they are non-absorbent, resistant to most chemicals and can be washed repeatedly, removing the risk of contamination
  • recyclable: more than 96% of our plastic pallets are manufactured from recycled plastic and, at the end of their long working life, can be reground to produce new, sustainable plastic pallets, saving trees along the way.

When you compare plastic pallets with wooden pallets, plastic is truly triumphant.

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