Schott Pharmaceutical Systems - On the way to zero-defect glass tubing

SCHOTT is integrating a specially developed big-data solution into its pharmaceutical tubing production, replacing statistical sample-based quality assurance with 100% online measurement. perfeXion enables data for each individual glass tube to be collected online, in real-time - an innovation that sets a new standard for pharmaceutical glass.

Making accurate glass tubes for the pharmaceutical industry is no small feat. At several metres a second, a virtually endless glass tube comes from the melt at over 1,600°C and is drawn over a rotating mandrel. By making adjustments to the drawing speed and the air supply, wall thickness and tube diameter can be precisely determined down to the hundredth of a millimetre. A few metres further down the line, the cooled glass section is cut into roughly 1.50m pieces. From these, converters can manufacture pharmaceutical containers, such as vials and syringes.

Thanks to a unique big data approach, SCHOTT can measure everything about every glass tube in production. This allows post-processing steps to be efficiently aligned with tubing quality. With big data, the international technology group is creating a new industry standard and raising the quality of pharmaceutical glass production to a new level.

Instead of selecting a few glass tubes from each batch for statistical quality control, the new perfeXion system measures the entire glass tube many times over as it is drawn from the melt. Lasers recognise deviations in diameter and wall thickness, for example, and camera and IR inspection systems can even detect the smallest inclusions in the glass. Around 100,000 data tags are generated every minute. An integrated IT system, evaluating the continuous glass tube with real-time data measurements, calculates incidents of imperfection with such precision that it can later differentiate corresponding individual tubes which can then be sorted out. Each tube is checked again at its completion.

Learning curve

The system's development took several years. Analysing a curved tube surface zooming down a production line was a particularly difficult challenge. The effort, however, has paid off - not least because the data analysis is a source of insight into how production can be further optimised.

Every year, SCHOTT produces about 150,000t of glass tubing, most of which is destined for pharmaceutical packaging. Thanks to perfeXion, quality data can be traced back more detailed, not only by SCHOTT, but also the companies at subsequent steps in the value chain.

"There comes a particular responsibility being a pharmaceutical industry supplier, and traceability is a major issue in the industry," says Dr Patrick Markschläger, executive vice-president at SCHOTT. "By gathering information on each individual glass tube, Schott has already made an important contribution to quality assurance for downstream post-processing steps at the very beginning of the value chain."

New potential

"Companies that want to systematically control their production to make it more efficient in the long run can't afford to miss a strategic use of production data," adds Dr Frank Heinricht, chairman of the board of management at SCHOTT. "Making intelligently linked data available to others not only optimises processes - it also enables new creative potentials for product and process development."

SCHOTT already implemented perfeXion at all FIOLAX tubing lines in its German plants. It is currently being installed at the other glass tubing sites in Brazil and India. The system is tailored to the production of glass tubing, but other areas of the company can certainly benefit from the findings in the medium term. Thanks to a unique big-data approach, SCHOTT can test every glass tube at 100%, which also ensures that processing companies can optimise their processes to suit the quality of the products.

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