Packaging logjams are being blamed for an expected delay in H1N1 shipments this flu season. Reports are that manufacturing capacity cannot keep up with vaccine production. But it is too late for vaccine manufacturers to order and install new filling lines to share the load.
“New lines aren’t realistic for this season,” says Tony Miller, marketing and communications supervisor for Bosch Packaging Technology (Minneapolis). “You can’t just flip a switch.”
Current filling lines can be optimized to hasten production, but only by about a small margin. And the process can’t be changed too much. Any time you change a packaging process, “you have to go through validation again,” and that takes time and money, Miller says.
Instead, vaccine manufacturers experiencing the logjams should look for contract packaging service providers with available capacity. Miller says that a number of contract packagers themselves geared up in advance to support increased filling volumes. “We have provided new change parts–star wheels, guides, and others–that enable these line operators to switch machines from one program to another to support different packaging volumes. These aren’t off-the-shelf parts. They are complex, because each machine to some degree is a custom machine.” The shortest turnaround time for ordering such parts is about four to five weeks, he adds.
With the additional parts, some contractors were able to take lines running at partial capacity and extend them to nearly 100%.
Manufacturers may also want to look in their own warehouses to see if they already have the needed equipment. “Sometimes machines are delivered, but never used–often left in the crate,” Miller says. Equipment is typically ordered during Phase III clinical trials, he says, but if the product fails, companies are left with an unutilized machine.
Manufacturers would still need to test and validate new filling machines, but they wouldn’t have to wait for a new machine to be built, which could take six months or more.
Miller doesn’t seem surprised about the strained packaging lines. “The industry has been running very lean these days,” he says.