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Pharmaceutical Testing Laboratory Eliminates Manual Labeling

Wed, 02/18/2009 - 6:38am
Automated solution saves time, labor for pharmaceutical testing facility

Manually applying labels to a large number of items is a slow process, and most companies try to automate their labeling whenever possible. However, some items can't be labeled using traditional print-and-apply equipment because they are too small, too delicate, or too awkwardly shaped. Technicians at the company's lab were bogged down by hand-applying labels to small vials containing drug samples. They wanted to automate the process, but no off-the-shelf equipment could handle the tiny vials.

A solution to its labeling woes was found with a custom-built printer-applicator that has cut the time it takes to label samples by 60%. The new automated labeling solution has reduced the amount of staff required for labeling, and reduced the possibility of errors in the labeling process.

The drug development services company helps pharmaceutical manufacturers test and commercialize new medications. At the company's laboratory, dose determination testing is performed using tiny 2mil vials. These vials had always been hand-labeled after being filled and frozen, a process that took an average of twenty minutes for a box of 96 vials. The labeling was time consuming and open to potential errors. "We needed to make a change," says the laboratory manager. "It was either request more staff or find a better way to label the vials."

A set of known samples to the pharmaceutical company samples is compared in order to determine dosage. Staff scan the bar coded labels on the vials to ensure they have selected the correct batch of known samples for analysis.

"We used to apply these labels by hand, which was really cumbersome," added the lab manager. "Our goal was to have a machine apply them so we could free up staff and reduce the amount of time spent labeling. We knew from the start this would be a custom solution."

The company searched for an automated solution, receiving proposals from several different companies, and eventually selected Label Mill/CSI to develop a custom printing and labeling solution that could automate the process. "They were the only ones who were flexible enough to do what we needed done," according to the lab manager.

Label Mill/CSI received vial, label and rack samples from the company along with an explanation of how the ideal machine would work. Within approximately two months, Label Mill/CSI created the Label Mill 3501 Vial Labeler using SATO America's M8485Se high-speed print engine and applicator technology from Label Mill. The new machine can quickly and accurately pre-label an entire rack of vials in six minutes at the push of a button.

Test information is sent to the labeler from the laboratory information management system (LIMS). Staff members place the entire rack of vials into the 3501 Labeler, start the machine and move on to other tasks while the labeler operates. The machine lifts each vial into place, prints and applies the label, then blows the vial back into the rack. It can work with full or partially-full racks. "They don't have to watch it while it's labeling," says Rob Wienhoff, director, systems group at Label Mill/CSI.

"You just put the rack in there, press a button and away it goes," says Wienhoff. "It's not an elaborate solution, but it saves us a huge amount of time and effort."

Because the vials are frozen at -70º Celsius after being filled, a special label and adhesive is used that can handle the freezing process. The approximately one-inch-by-one-inch labels include a linear bar code and human-readable information. The data on the label is unique depending on the tests being run, but can include assay name, concentration level, preparation date, expiration date, and a unique database identifier assigned by the company's software systems. Scanners from Intermec Technologies Corp. are used to scan the labels.

The labeler was integrated with the LIMS and was up and running in a matter of hours. "Because it's so self-contained, the training mostly focused on upkeep of the printer," says Wienhoff. "There was very little they had to know about the movement of the vials and tubes. It's an intelligent print system, so if a vial is not where it needs to be, the machine faults out before the label is misapplied or the vial breaks."

Also, the company had to re-design its vial-handling process to accommodate the automated labeling system. In the past, the vials were hand-labeled after being filled. There was always the possibility of mixing samples. Now, the automated solution labels the vials before being filled and frozen, which has helped ensure the correct samples are used for testing.

The company currently has plans to deploy additional machines at other facilities and has talked to Label Mill/CSI about developing a version of the 3501 that can label slightly larger vials as well.

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