Mr. Deblister Gets the Pills Out

Mr. Deblister Saves the Day!

When you’re sick and looking for relief, the last thing you need is a difficult package to open. But state and federal laws require certain drugs – the most effective ones, it seems – to be contained in childproof packages.

So, bleary-eyed and achy, you stumble to the kitchen in search of a pill or capsule to relieve the stuffed-up nose and headache that plague you every winter. After much digging, you locate the appropriate box, open it … and find yourself faced with the frustrating task of removing the desired medication from a seemingly impervious package. At this point, you probably refer to this innovative containment system as a %#@&! package, but its real name is a blister package.

A typical blister package consists of three layers: a layer of paper that is printed with a warning label, a layer of foil that seals in the medication and a layer of plastic bubbles, or blisters, that holds the pills or capsules. To you these little bubbles may simply hold relief from your cold symptoms, but for one machine shop near Philadelphia, the same package is earning them profits.

The Gemel Precision Tool Company, Inc., of Ivyland, Pennsylvania, specializes in making blister-package tooling for thermoform packaging machines. They make the tools that form the bubbles, seal the packages and perforate the cards into sections. Their tooling has been used to package such well-known products as Sudafed, Actifed and Benadryl.

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It would seem that getting the medications into the packages would be the primary objective. But sometimes a drug company finds something wrong with a blister package – some of the blisters may be empty, or the labeling may be wrong – and needs to get the product back out. They could just throw the packages away, but disposing of the drugs properly can be expensive. And, depending on the medication, the packages may contain a fortune in product – some tablets can cost 50 to 75 dollars apiece.

Using their knowledge of tooling for blister packages, Gemel designed a specialty machine in 1994 that takes the drugs out of the packages. The Mr. DeblisterTM product recovery system allows drug companies to recover inventory by punching holes in the blister packages and retrieving the tablets so they can be repackaged.

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Gemel began as a tool and die shop in 1971, but started doing work for the maker of Tylenol in the early eighties. “Most of the machinery used in the drug packaging industry is made in Europe,” explains Ernie Gehlert, vice president of Gemel. “Because of this, the replacement parts are costly and the lead times are very long. So nearby drug companies started coming to us to fix broken parts. We got kind of lucky.” Such companies as Pfizer and Warner Lambert are among Gemel’s clients.

The idea for the Mr. Deblister came from serving their customers’ needs, Gehlert says. Yet, some customers still don’t know what the machines are for. “Even people inside the industry don’t know what the Mr. Deblister does,” he says. ”Start listing some of the reasons to use it, though, and they see the possibilities. You can have a fortune’s worth of product in one card, and some companies have a room full of people sitting around and tearing packages apart by hand. Then they buy a machine like ours and do it automatically. If the medicine is expensive, the return on investment can be one day.”

Each Mr. Deblister has a custom set of tools created specifically for the dimensions of the package and the arrangement of the blisters holding the drugs. The tools are either modeled from the actual package or, since Gemel made the tooling that created the package in the first place, they just reverse the toolmaking process.

Gemel sells more than 50 Mr. Deblisters a year, and then manufactures sets of tools for customers who need to deblister new packages. “We keep getting repeat business,” Gehlert says. With sales worldwide, the Mr. Deblister accounts for nearly 25% of the company’s workload.

The tooling for the Mr. Deblister is machined out of hard-coated aluminum, as are the company’s molds and dies. It’s in the tooling where the company has seen growth, by making new tools for each machine. Once a drug company has a Mr. Deblister, they need new tools for each type of package from which they want to recover drugs.

To create the tooling, Gemel has eight Haas machining centers housed in their 25,000-square-foot shop, including a VF-0 bought in 1992 and a VF-3 bought last year. There are also a VF-6 and a VF-7 for machining larger parts, such as the aluminum tracks that transport blister packages from one stage to the next in the thermoforming machines, and an HS-1RP horizontal machining center.

“The first machine worked great,” says Gehlert, “so we bought more, because we wanted to standardize the controls. We don’t do high-production runs here. I don’t have a programmer, a setup guy and then an operator. With the Haas controls, each guy can work at any machine.”

Steve Sweeney, one of Gemel’s programmer/operators, says the Haas machines are ready for anything, and he likes knowing they’ll be up and running every day. “The zero downtime is the best,” he says. Sweeney uses the HS-1RP to machine large parts for the packaging machines, such as cooling rolls and barrel cams. “I have a vise on one pallet and a rotary table on the other, so I can have the machine doing rotary work on one side while I’m setting up the vise on the other side,” he says.

Gemel’s experience making tooling has helped the company earn a variety of other jobs as well, such as creating a sealing plate for a medical product. They needed to machine oval openings in a piece of plate-stock aluminum that had vulcanized rubber on one side of it. Originally, it took two setups to mill each side. But when Gemel purchased a Haas VF-3 with a 15,000-rpm spindle, the high-speed machining option and a rotary table, the time savings were enormous. Sweeney created a four-sided tombstone and mounted it on the Haas rotary table to machine four plates in one setup.

“We were able to take our run time from 45 minutes per plate down to 4 minutes with the high-speed machining,” said Sweeney. “We indexed the rotary three more times and got a total of four parts with one push of the start button. The time savings were tremendous.”

Such savings are necessary to remain profitable in the current economic climate; the recent recession has hurt Gemel. “Normally, pharmaceutical companies don’t feel the recession, because people are always getting sick and need to take medicine,” says Gehlert. “But this past year we are feeling the downturn. The drug companies are not developing new products and new packaging.”

But Gemel and Mr. Gehlert are positive that things will improve, and the company hopes to purchase more Haas machines. “I would love to buy ten more if I had the work for them,” Gehlert says. “When I need more capacity, I will go with Haas machines. The value and price are all there.”