US20080093372A1 - Method and apparatus for sorting, counting and packaging pharmaceutical drugs and other objects - Google Patents

Method and apparatus for sorting, counting and packaging pharmaceutical drugs and other objects Download PDF

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US20080093372A1
US20080093372A1 US11975859 US97585907A US2008093372A1 US 20080093372 A1 US20080093372 A1 US 20080093372A1 US 11975859 US11975859 US 11975859 US 97585907 A US97585907 A US 97585907A US 2008093372 A1 US2008093372 A1 US 2008093372A1
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ramp
canister
present invention
apparatus
end
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US11975859
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Monroe T. Milton
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Milton Monroe T
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    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65BMACHINES, APPARATUS OR DEVICES FOR, OR METHODS OF, PACKAGING ARTICLES OR MATERIALS; UNPACKING
    • B65B35/00Supplying, feeding, arranging, or orientating articles to be packaged
    • B65B35/06Separating single articles from loose masses of articles
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65BMACHINES, APPARATUS OR DEVICES FOR, OR METHODS OF, PACKAGING ARTICLES OR MATERIALS; UNPACKING
    • B65B1/00Packaging fluent solid material, e.g. powders, granular or loose fibrous material, loose masses of small articles, in individual containers or receptacles, e.g. bags, sacks, boxes, cartons, cans jars
    • B65B1/04Methods of, or means for, filling the material into the containers or receptacles
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65BMACHINES, APPARATUS OR DEVICES FOR, OR METHODS OF, PACKAGING ARTICLES OR MATERIALS; UNPACKING
    • B65B5/00Packaging individual articles in containers or receptacles, e.g. bags, sacks, boxes, cartons, cans, jars
    • B65B5/10Filling containers or receptacles progressively or in stages by introducing successive articles, or layers of articles
    • B65B5/101Filling containers or receptacles progressively or in stages by introducing successive articles, or layers of articles by gravity
    • B65B5/103Filling containers or receptacles progressively or in stages by introducing successive articles, or layers of articles by gravity for packaging pills or tablets
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65BMACHINES, APPARATUS OR DEVICES FOR, OR METHODS OF, PACKAGING ARTICLES OR MATERIALS; UNPACKING
    • B65B57/00Automatic control, checking, warning, or safety devices
    • B65B57/10Automatic control, checking, warning, or safety devices responsive to absence, presence, abnormal feed, or misplacement of articles or materials to be packaged
    • B65B57/14Automatic control, checking, warning, or safety devices responsive to absence, presence, abnormal feed, or misplacement of articles or materials to be packaged and operating to control, or stop, the feed of articles or material to be packaged
    • GPHYSICS
    • G07CHECKING-DEVICES
    • G07FCOIN-FREED OR LIKE APPARATUS
    • G07F11/00Coin-freed apparatus for dispensing, or the like, discrete articles
    • G07F11/02Coin-freed apparatus for dispensing, or the like, discrete articles from non-movable magazines
    • G07F11/04Coin-freed apparatus for dispensing, or the like, discrete articles from non-movable magazines in which magazines the articles are stored one vertically above the other
    • G07F11/16Delivery means
    • G07F11/165Delivery by means of an xyz-picker or multi-dimensional article picking arrangement
    • GPHYSICS
    • G07CHECKING-DEVICES
    • G07FCOIN-FREED OR LIKE APPARATUS
    • G07F11/00Coin-freed apparatus for dispensing, or the like, discrete articles
    • G07F11/62Coin-freed apparatus for dispensing, or the like, discrete articles in which the articles are stored in compartments in fixed receptacles
    • GPHYSICS
    • G07CHECKING-DEVICES
    • G07FCOIN-FREED OR LIKE APPARATUS
    • G07F17/00Coin-freed apparatus for hiring articles; Coin-freed facilities or services
    • G07F17/0092Coin-freed apparatus for hiring articles; Coin-freed facilities or services for assembling and dispensing of pharmaceutical articles

Abstract

A method and apparatus is provided for handling loose objects having different physical characteristics, such as pharmaceutical drugs including, without limitation, oral solids in the form of pills, tablets, capsules and the like. Loose objects are loaded into individual canisters. A tooling assembly, comprising at least one canister drive mechanism, imaging sensor and package handler is mounted to a gantry assembly, can be translated through the cabinet via the gantry assembly to engage with particular canisters in accordance with unique and dynamic control parameters. Objects are dispensed from a canister directly to the desired packaging, such as a vial or “blister pack.” Additionally, a beneficially stronger blister pack container is provided.

Description

    CROSS REFERENCES TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
  • THIS APPLICATION CLAIMS THE BENEFIT OF U.S. PROVISIONAL PATENT APPLICATION Ser. No. 60/853,698, FILED Oct. 23, 2006
  • STATEMENTS AS TO RIGHTS TO INVENTIONS MADE UNDER FEDERALLY SPONSORED RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
  • NONE
  • BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
  • 1. Field of the Invention
  • The present invention pertains to a method and apparatus for handling loose objects having different physical characteristics. More particularly still, the present invention pertains to a method and apparatus for storing, sorting, counting and packaging loose objects, such as pharmaceutical drugs including, without limitation, pills, tablets, capsules and the like. More particularly still, the present invention pertains to a method and apparatus for sorting, counting and packaging pharmaceutical drugs having different physical characteristics including, without limitation, sizes, shapes, textures, colors and/or weights.
  • 2. Brief Description of the Prior Art
  • Modern day pharmaceutical drugs—such as pills, tablets, capsules and the like—exhibit a wide variety of physical characteristics including, but not necessarily limited to, sizes, geometries, textures, shapes, colors and weights. Storing, handling, accounting for, and packaging of, such drugs have proven to be a challenge for the pharmaceutical distribution industry. Although such tasks have historically been performed manually, it is widely recognized that effective automation of such tasks greatly improves the overall cost, efficiency and accuracy of such tasks.
  • Attempts have been made to automate various tasks associated with the handling of pharmaceutical drugs. Such efforts have been reasonably successful in certain limited circumstances; existing automated pharmaceutical drug handling systems have yielded passable results when only a single type of drug is being handled and/or when equipment space is not an issue. For example, in the bulk distribution scenario, large-scale equipment can be specifically matched to a particular type of drug, operated for an extended period, and then broken down and re-tooled before changing to a different drug.
  • Unfortunately, existing automated handling systems have proven to be inadequate when used to simultaneously handle multiple pharmaceutical drugs (that is, pills, tablets, capsules, etc.) having different physical characteristics, and/or when space for automated handling equipment is limited. Such existing handling systems typically utilize one or more of the following:
      • rotating slotted disks with slot dimensions matched to particular pill dimensions;
      • rotating slotted drums with slots matched to particular pill dimensions;
      • rotating wheels with vacuum holes and adjustable sweepers set by the user to allow a single pill to pass at a time;
      • pressurized air to fluidize pills (similar to a lotto or bingo machine);
      • “v-shaped” vibratory trays;
      • augers that pull pills up an incline and are jogged back and forth at pre-determined rates matched to a particular pill characteristics so that pills singulate as they are fed up the incline; and
      • ribbed, rotating plates that move pills toward the outer rim of such plates, and an adjustable sweeper to allow only one pill at a time to be diverted from this rim to a drop-out chute.
  • Existing automated handling devices, including those described above, suffer from a number of very serious deficiencies. Most existing automated systems cannot simultaneously account for multiple pharmaceutical drugs having different physical characteristics because automation hardware must be matched to a specific type of drug being handled. At a minimum, such existing systems must be frequently (and in some cases continuously) adjusted in order to handle different drugs and obtain desired levels of accuracy. Further, accuracy of such systems has not proven to be reliable.
  • Importantly, because different drugs come in contact with certain common elements of the handling equipment, existing pharmaceutical handling systems can permit cross contamination. Residue from one type of drug can be left behind on the equipment surfaces encountered by the drugs being handled by such equipment. The residue can then be picked up by other drugs coming in contact with such equipment surfaces, thereby resulting in contamination of such drugs. Additionally, most existing methods do not permit packaging of sorted and/or counted drugs, and those that do allow packaging of drugs do not permit counting of the drugs directly into such packaging.
  • Existing drug handling systems also suffer from some especially serious limitations during the packaging of pharmaceutical drugs, particularly when such drugs are packaged in sealed containers commonly referred to as “blister cards” or “blister packs.” Such existing automated drug packaging systems frequently utilize a rotary drum or other counting system that dispenses the counted objects into an external shuttle or other device. The shuttle contents are then transferred into blister pack trays. Such systems add an unnecessary step to the process between the counting and packaging phases. This unnecessary step allows for cross contamination, as drug, residue can collect on the shuttle and be transferred to other drugs. Such systems yield generally poor results, have large footprints and occupy an excessive amount of space.
  • As a result of the aforementioned limitations, existing automated pharmaceutical handling systems are not ideally suited to serving the needs of Long Term Care (LTC) or retail pharmacies. Such existing systems, and particularly those that include a packaging function, are either too expensive or too bulky (or both) for such applications. A relatively small and inexpensive automated pharmaceutical handling system would reduce the labor burden on technicians in LTC and retail pharmacies.
  • Thus, there is a need for an automated pharmaceutical handling method and apparatus that can simultaneously handle multiple drugs (that is, pills, tablets, capsules, etc.) having different physical characteristics. The apparatus should be relatively compact, such that it can be used in virtually any environment including, without limitation, in pharmacies or other areas where space is limited. The apparatus should permit isolation of different drugs from one another to prevent cross contamination, and should allow for accurate and efficient sorting, counting and packaging of such drugs. The apparatus should also permit the counting and packaging of such drugs in a single process to improve accuracy and eliminate cross contamination. Further, the apparatus should permit such drugs to be counted and/or dispensed directly into packaging (such as, for example, vials, strip seal pouches, blister pack trays or other packaging), as desired.
  • SUMMARY OF THE PRESENT INVENTION
  • The present invention comprises a method and apparatus for automated handling of objects having different physical characteristics, such as pharmaceutical drugs including, without limitation, pills, tablets, capsules and the like, having multiple sizes, geometries, textures, shapes, colors and/or weights. The present invention permits the simultaneous storage, sorting and counting of multiple objects. Further, the present invention permits on-demand packaging of such objects, including the filling, sealing, and labeling of blister packs, all utilizing a single piece of equipment having minimal space and power requirements.
  • It should be noted that the present invention has a number of advantages, and can be beneficially utilized in a number of different applications. For ease of reference, the invention is discussed herein primarily with respect to pharmaceutical drugs, and in the context of the pharmaceutical distribution industry. However, the description set forth herein is for illustration purposes only, and is not intended to limit or otherwise restrict the scope of the present invention in any way.
  • Although the method and apparatus of the present invention can be used in any number of different applications, the invention is particularly beneficial for pharmacies serving the LTC industry and/or the retail market. LTC pharmacies frequently package a large percentage of their prescriptions in a multi-dose (such as a 30-day) supply format such as sealed blister packs, while retail pharmacies typically dispense their prescriptions in vials. The present invention can fill, seal, and label sealed blister packs, and/or dispense directly into vials, thereby relieving a significant labor burden on pharmacy technicians.
  • The present invention broadly comprises a method and apparatus for storing, sorting, metering and packaging objects such as, for example, pharmaceutical drugs in pill form. In the preferred embodiment, the present invention comprises at least one cabinet member having a plurality of removable canisters beneficially arrayed in a plurality of rows and columns, a motion control system, a canister drive and control sub-system, an imaging sub-system, a packaging sub-system, a processing sub-system and a power sub-system.
  • The present invention further comprises a method for positioning a canister drive mechanism, sensing apparatus and package handler proximate to particular canisters, as desired, to address such canisters in accordance with unique and dynamic control parameters. In the preferred embodiment of the present invention, at least one canister drive mechanism, imaging sensor, and package handler are disposed on end-of-arm tooling disposed on a Cartesian robot, which is in the form of an automated gantry assembly. Such components translate through the cabinet via said Cartesian robot to engage the particular canister(s) containing desired objects (pills).
  • Each removable canister in the cabinet comprises a container having at least two distinct areas, one for bulk pill storage and another for pill flow control. Pills are loaded into the bulk storage area of each removable canister to be utilized; in most cases, only a single type of pill is loaded into a canister at a particular time. In the preferred embodiment, each canister contains a plurality of surfaces in the bulk storage area of said canister to permit gravity feeding of the stored pills to a metering device. The metering device, which is located near the lower portion of the bulk storage area, ensures a controlled flow of pills onto a flow control ramp. Importantly, the pills contained within each canister only come in contact with certain internal surfaces of that particular canister, and the contents of the different removable canisters remain isolated from each other, thereby preventing cross contamination of pills.
  • In the preferred embodiment, each canister of the present invention further includes a flow control device. Said flow control device generally comprises a ramp having a continuous multi-planar surface for imparting energy onto pills situated on said ramp, and facilitating the feed forward control process of the system. Each ramp has a concave cross-section along its width and a convex planar cross-section along its length. The concave cross-section promotes end-to-end alignment of pills, while the convex cross-section acts to accelerate the pills in direction of flow in order to control separation of pills. The multi-planar ramp defines a step (drop) from one section to another along a substantially continuous surface, is less abusive to the pills situated thereon compared to other handling devices, and promotes singulation and separation of such pills.
  • In the preferred embodiment, the ramp is vibrated to impart energy on the pills situated on said ramp. Specifically, the ramp surface is vibrated along the longitudinal axis of said ramp, with dynamic close loop control of the amplitude and frequency of such vibration, to control orientation and flow of pills situated on said ramp. Additionally, the horizontal orientation of the longitudinal axis of the ramp is dynamically adjustable (that is, the inclination or declination of the ramp can be dynamically adjusted) so that gravitational force is used to increase or decrease pill separation and flow direction of pills situated on said ramp.
  • The present invention utilizes a machine vision based imaging sensor for closed-loop control of pill flow. Said imaging sensor permits implementation of feed forward control logic to react to problems in real-time before pills are actually dispensed. Specifically, the present invention utilizes an area imaging object sensor to track pills at certain critical stages as such pills transition through the apparatus including, without limitation, on the ramp of each canister. Information obtained from imaging scanner is sent to at least one processor that controls various elements of the present invention including, without limitation, actuators that adjust ramp inclination and vibration. Such area imaging object sensor provides increased control and management of the pills throughout the handling process.
  • One embodiment of the imaging system of the present invention utilizes a reflective imaging device capable of controlling a plurality of light emitting devices over a range of different wavelengths. The reflected energy is mechanically and electronically filtered in order to track the pills. In another embodiment, the imaging system of the present invention comprises a translucent rear illuminated surface for silhouetting pills in flow. The use of back lighting allows for maximum contrast and improved pill tracking.
  • The present invention utilizes at least one processor to implement a method of feed forward control logic to expedite the filling of different pharmacy packaging with a common canister and control. With closed loop control on all drive components associated with pill flow and packaging positing, preemptive logic improves the delivery and accuracy of the overall filling process.
  • The term open loop control generally refers to systems wherein output is not measured. Such systems are operated using consistent input parameters without measuring whether such parameters are actually achieved. Such systems can become unstable thereby allowing too many, or too few, objects to flow. By contrast, closed loop systems (such as the system employed by present invention) use measured feedback to dynamically adjust the input values and maintain the desired output levels. Closed loop systems frequently utilize an encoder tied to a drive motor, such that output can be measured and input voltage can be dynamically adjusted. Improved control allows designers to ensure consistent operational parameters over the life of the product and across manufactured systems.
  • The feed forward control processes of the present invention utilize anticipatory logic for future events to increase the overall efficiency and control of the system. Use of closed loop motion control with feed forward system control allows for increased accuracy and reduced cycle time by dynamically adjusting systems to account for object flow.
  • The present invention further comprises a novel blister card design from film with sufficient stiffness so that additional laminate packaging layers, such as cardboard sheets and the like that are frequently required to provide rigidity, are not required. An embodiment demonstrates the effective use of an interlocking blister card to prevent the propagation of bend lines, thus allowing for the reduction of material layers. Such blister cards can be embossed with characters formed into blisters.
  • BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
  • The foregoing summary, as well as the following detailed description of the preferred embodiments, is better understood when read in conjunction with the appended drawings. For the purpose of illustrating the invention, the drawings show certain preferred embodiments. It is understood, however, that the invention is not limited to the specific methods and devices disclosed.
  • FIG. 1 depicts a front view of one embodiment of a cabinet of the present invention.
  • FIG. 1A depicts a side view of the cabinet embodiment depicted in FIG. 1.
  • FIG. 2 depicts a front view of an alternative embodiment of a cabinet of the present invention.
  • FIG. 2A depicts a side view of the cabinet embodiment depicted in FIG. 2.
  • FIG. 3 depicts a side perspective view of the apparatus of the present invention with supporting cabinet enclosure removed.
  • FIG. 4 depicts a side perspective view of a canister of the present invention.
  • FIG. 5 depicts a side perspective cut-away view of a canister of the present invention.
  • FIG. 6 depicts a side cut-away view of a canister of the present invention.
  • FIG. 7 depicts a perspective view of a multi-planar ramp of the present invention.
  • FIG. 8 depicts a front view of a multi-planar ramp of the present invention.
  • FIG. 9 depicts a side view of a multi-planar ramp of the present invention.
  • FIG. 10 depicts a side view of a multi-planar ramp of the present invention in raised and lowered positions.
  • FIGS. 11 through 14 depict side views of a multi-planar ramp of the present invention having loose objects disposed on the upper surface of said ramp.
  • FIG. 15 depicts a side perspective view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention engaged with a canister of the present invention.
  • FIG. 16 depicts front view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention engaged with a canister of the present invention.
  • FIG. 17 depicts a side perspective view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention holding a blister pack tray.
  • FIG. 18 depicts an end view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention holding a blister pack tray.
  • FIG. 19 depicts a side perspective view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention holding a vial.
  • FIG. 20 depicts a side cut away view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention holding a vial and engaged with a canister of the present invention.
  • FIG. 21 depicts an overhead view of a prior art blister pack tray.
  • FIG. 21A depicts a side view of the existing prior art blister pack tray depicted in FIG. 21.
  • FIG. 22 depicts a side view of the prior art blister pack tray depicted in FIGS. 21 and 21A exposed to bending forces.
  • FIG. 23 depicts an overhead view of an improved blister pack tray of the present invention.
  • FIG. 23A depicts a side view of the improved blister pack tray of the present invention depicted in FIG. 23.
  • DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF A PREFERRED EMBODIMENT OF THE INVENTION
  • The present invention has a number of advantages, and can be beneficially utilized in a number of different applications involving the sorting, counting and/or packaging of loose objects. For ease of reference, the present invention is described herein primarily in connection with applications involving pharmaceutical drugs and other substances, and especially drugs and other substances delivered in the form of oral solids. The description set forth herein is for illustration purposes only, and is not intended to limit or otherwise restrict the scope of the present invention in any way. For illustration purposes, the present invention is described in connection with the handling of pills; however, it is to be observed that the present invention can be used with a multitude of other oral solids or loose objects.
  • The present invention broadly comprises a method and apparatus for storing, sorting, counting and packaging loose objects such as, for example, pharmaceutical drugs in pill, tablet and/or capsule form. Referring to the drawings, FIG. 1 depicts a front view of a cabinet member 10 of the present invention, while FIG. 1A depicts a side view of said cabinet member 10. It is to be observed that the specific design parameters of said cabinet member 10 can be varied to meet particular needs. As a result, said cabinet member 10 can be manufactured having a wide range of shapes, sizes and/or configurations depending upon the intended use of the present invention, as well as the specific environment in which the present invention is to be utilized. Still referring to FIG. 1, cabinet member 10 generally comprises a plurality of removable canisters 100 disposed within external cabinet support frame 11. Cabinet member 10 further comprises processing/control module 40 and packaging module 50. Such components are generally depicted in FIG. 1A as well, except for canisters 100 which are obscured from view in FIG. 1A.
  • FIGS. 2 and 2A depict front and side views, respectively, of an alternative embodiment of cabinet member 10 of the present invention. The embodiment depicted in FIGS. 2 and 2A are similar to the embodiments depicted in FIGS. 1 and 1A, except that cabinet member 10 has a single array of canisters 100, and a vertical layout of packaging module 50. By contrast, in the embodiment depicted in FIGS. 1 and 1A, cabinet member 10 has two distinct grids of canisters 100, and a horizontal orientation of packaging module 50. In many cases, the specific layout of the individual components of the present invention (including, but not necessarily limited to, canisters 100, processing/control module 40 and packaging module 50) in support frame 11 of cabinet member 10 will be dictated by a number of factors related to the specific application in which the apparatus will be utilized. Such factors include, without limitation, the type of pills being handled, the location and/or environment in which said cabinet will be employed, and/or the particular type of prescription container that an application will support.
  • In most cases, cabinet member 10 of the present invention is beneficially tailored to best accommodate its intended use. By way of illustration, but not limitation, when the apparatus of the present invention is to be utilized in an LTC or retail pharmacy setting (or any other location where space may be limited) it is generally beneficial that support frame 11 of said cabinet be relatively compact with a small footprint requiring minimal floor space.
  • FIG. 3 depicts a side perspective view of the apparatus of the present invention generally depicted in FIG. 2, external cabinet support frame 11 removed. Referring to FIG. 3, removable canisters 100 are beneficially arrayed in a grid pattern defining a plurality of rows and columns. Automated gantry assembly 20, which comprises a plurality of elongate and slidably connected rails, such as vertical rail 21 and horizontal rail 22, is powered by drive motor assembly 23 and is mounted in general proximity to one face of said canisters 100. In the preferred embodiment of the present invention, said automated gantry assembly 20 comprises a Cartesian robot assembly of a type that is well known to those having ordinary skill in the art. In the preferred embodiment, said automated gantry assembly 20 is used to position components of the present invention proximate to particular canisters 100, as desired, in order to address and engage such canisters in accordance with unique and dynamic control parameters. Specifically, such components are translated through cabinet member 10 within support frame 11 (not depicted in FIG. 3) via automated gantry assembly 20 to engage with particular canister(s) 100 containing desired loose objects (such as, for example, pills) to be sorted, counted and/or packaged in accordance with the present invention.
  • Still referring to FIG. 3, packaging module 50 may comprise a number of different components depending upon different application variables including, without limitation, the type of packaging to be utilized in a particular situation. However, in the preferred embodiment of the present invention, packaging module 50 will typically beneficially include one or more of the following components: container stock storage bin 51, sealing and labeling module 52, sealing stock storage 53 and sealed package output 54.
  • Still referring to FIG. 3, automated gantry assembly 20 is beneficially utilized to translate end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 to desired locations within external cabinet support frame 11 of cabinet member 10 (not depicted in FIG. 3). In many applications, automated gantry assembly 20 will first translate end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 to prescription container stock storage bin 51 to retrieve an empty prescription container. After securing an empty container, end-of arm tooling assembly 300 is translated to a desired canister 100 via automated gantry assembly 20, and engaged with said canister for dispensing of particular pills directly into said container in accordance with the teachings of the present invention. When dispensing operations are completed, end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 disengages from said engaged canister 100, and thereafter deposits a filled container in the sealing and labeling module 52. Said filled container can be sealed and labeled in module 52. Thereafter, the filled and sealed container is then deposited in sealed package output component 54 for further handling. The aforementioned basic process can be repeated for each fill request.
  • When loose objects are packaged using blister packs, sealing and labeling module 52 of the present invention can be utilized to perform the sealing and labeling operations of the present invention. In most cases, blister packs comprise a molded film tray having a plurality of spaced indentions. Pills are deposited within such indentions of such film tray containers as more fully set forth herein. Thereafter, automated gantry assembly 20 translates said filled tray to said sealing and labeling module 52. In most cases, a foil cover is thereafter placed over and secured to said film tray, and secured using a cold seal adhesive to enclose said pills within the filled blister pack tray. Frequently, a roller is also used to apply pressure to said foil cover to ensure proper adhesion of such foil to said film tray container. After the foil cover is applied, a prescription label containing required information can be printed and placed onto the sealed blister pack. Thereafter, said automated gantry assembly 200 can be used to transfer said sealed and labeled blister pack to sealed package output component 54 for further handling.
  • In the preferred embodiment, end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 of the present invention comprises a plurality of components. Referring briefly to FIG. 19, such components may include at least one of each of the following: at least one actuator 310, at least one light source 320, imaging sensor assembly 330, drive links 340, and prescription container holder 350.
  • Referring to FIG. 3, each removable canister 100 in cabinet member 10 generally comprises a separate storage container for the segregated storage of loose objects. Each container 100 comprises at least two distinct regions: one region for bulk pill storage and another region for pill flow control. Pills are loaded into the bulk storage region of each removable canister 100 to be utilized; in most cases, only a single type of pill is loaded into a particular canister at a particular time.
  • FIG. 4 depicts a side perspective view of canister 100 of the present invention. Canister 100 generally comprises canister housing 101 having loading opening 120. Canister housing 101 acts to protect pills contained within said canister 100 from unauthorized removal, moisture, ultraviolet penetration, and/or other contamination or spoilage. Pills can be loaded into canister 100 through opening 120, which is equipped with replenishment door 102. Replenishment door 102 is slidably mounted to canister housing 101, and can be beneficially locked to canister housing 101 for prevention of unauthorized entry into canister 100. Replenishment door 102 can also form a pressure seal against canister housing 101 to prevent air exchange. In the preferred embodiment of the present invention, replenishment door 102 is situated on the upper surface of canister housing 101 and maintains a substantially “flush” profile with the upper surface of said canister housing 101. Importantly, pills contained within a particular canister 100 only contact certain internal surfaces of that particular canister, while the contents of the other canisters remain completely isolated from such pills. As a result, pills or pill residue from one canister do not contact contents of another canister. The design of the present invention serves to prevent cross contamination of contents when different substances (such as, for example, multiple types of different drugs) are simultaneously stored and/or handled by said invention.
  • Still referring to FIG. 4, canister 100 also includes external drive sockets 111, optional label surface 113 and light pipe interfaces 322. Canister 100 further comprises opening 121 for the dispensing of loose objects from said canister. Multi-planar ramp, which is described in detail below, is disposed within canister housing 101. In the preferred embodiment, front end 204 of multi-planar ramp 200 (defining drip-off point 203, described below) is disposed in close proximity to opening 121 in canister housing 101.
  • FIG. 5 depicts a perspective cut-away view of canister 100 of the present invention. In the preferred embodiment, each canister 100 contains a plurality of cooperating components and surfaces situated within canister housing 101 that facilitate gravity feeding of loose objects (such as pills) stored within each such canister 100. Still referring to FIG. 5, pills loaded within canister housing 101 through opening 120 are permitted to migrate along inclined upper baffle 103. Said pills travel from upper baffle 103 to inclined lower baffle 104, and thereafter onto bulk metering ramp 105. When canister 100 is engaged by end-of-arm tooling assembly 300, energy can be supplied to canister 100 to vibrate upper baffle 103 and lower baffle 104. Baffle link 110 connects upper baffle 103 to lower baffle 104, and serves to transfer such vibratory energy between said upper and lower baffles. After pills within canister 100 reach bulk meter ramp 105, flow of such pills is beneficially controlled by bulk meter gate 106. Bulk meter gate 106 permits a controlled number of pills onto ramp 200, thus preventing an over-supply of pills on ramp 200.
  • Bulk meter gate 106 ensures a controlled flow of pills onto ramp 200. Pill motion on ramp 200 is observed by an imaging sensor assembly disposed on end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 (not shown in FIG. 5). In the preferred embodiment, said imaging sensor utilizes machine vision to account for objects in the imaging area. The imaging sensor monitors the results of actuating bulk meter gate 106, allowing closed loop control of such actuation. The use of said imaging sensor assembly, adjustable multi-planar ramp 200, and a closed loop feed forward control logic further permit the controlled flow of pills situated on the upper surface of said ramp 200.
  • In the preferred embodiment, ramp 200 has a continuous multi-planar upper surface to impart energy onto pills situated on said ramp 200, and to facilitate the feed forward control logic of the system. Ramp 200 generally has a substantially concave cross-section across its width and a substantially convex planar cross-section across its length. The concave cross-section promotes end-to-end alignment of pills on the upper surface of said ramp, while said convex cross-section acts to accelerate the pills in a desired direction in order to control separation of pills. The multi-planar surface of ramp 200 defines a step (drop) from one section to another section along a continuous surface, is less abusive to the pills situated on said ramp compared to other handling devices, and promotes singulation and separation of pills on said ramp 200.
  • FIG. 6 depicts a side cut away view of canister 100 of the present invention. Referring to FIG. 6, inclined upper baffle 103 is pivotally connected to the inner surface of canister housing 101 using upper pivot pin 107. Similarly, inclined lower baffle 104 is pivotally connected to the inner surface of canister housing 101 using lower pivot pin 108. Baffle link 110 connects upper baffle 103 to lower baffle 104. In the preferred embodiment, bulk metering ramp 105 has inclined upper surface 105 a defining a pitch that is oriented perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of said ramp. Said bulk metering ramp 105 is further pivotally attached to the inner surface of canister 101 using metering pivot pin 109. Bulk meter gate 106 is connected to the distal end of lower baffle 104 (opposite lower pivot pin 108) via slotted mounting bracket 112, and limits the flow of pills onto ramp 200. Ramp 200 is pivotally mounted to canister housing 101 at forward end 205, and pivots about a horizontal axis oriented perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of ramp 200. End 205 of ramp 200 is not mounted, and is free to travel along an arc, thereby permitting the incline angle of ramp 200 to be adjustable.
  • Referring to FIG. 7, ramp 200 has forward end 204 and free end 205. Ramp 200 further has a substantially concave cross sectional profile across its width, and a substantially convex cross sectional profile along its longitudinal axis. Across its width, cross section of ramp 200 forms a continuous concave surface (in the preferred embodiment, using a plurality of intersecting planes) for promoting flow of pills toward the lower portion of said cross section. Said cross section can be in the form of a two-plane (“V-shape”) cross section, or other effective shape, such as a smooth and continuously curved concave parabola. When mounted within a canister 100, ramp 200 pivots near end 204 about a rotational axis passing through cylindrical mounting pins 210. Referring to FIG. 8, which depicts a front view of multi-planar ramp 200, the longitudinal axis of ramp 200 comprises a plurality of inclined surfaces arrayed to form a continuous, but substantially convex, upper surface. Generally, the angular difference between the different inclined surfaces of ramp 200 permit the control system of the present invention to effectively manage pill separation and velocity (speed and direction) through dynamic adjustment of the incline of ramp 200.
  • FIG. 9 depicts a side view of multi-planar ramp having front end 204 and free end 205. In the preferred embodiment, ramp 200 of the present invention comprises a plurality of distinct zones. Zone A is situated at the leading edge of ramp 200 nearest drop-off point 203, which permits control of pill trajectory as pills depart ramp 200. Zone A of ramp 200 has beneficial profile 201, such that the exit angle of said ramp remains substantially consistent over the rotational limits of ramp 200 as said ramp pivots about cylindrical mounting pins 210. FIG. 10, which depicts a comparison view of ramp 200 in both raised and lowered positions, illustrates how the profile of ramp 200 can minimize the trajectory migration of pills depending upon the incline angle of said ramp 200. For purposes of the discussion, trajectory migration represents the difference between raised ramp trajectory and a lowered ramp trajectory for a given drop height, where said drop height is defined as the distance from drop-off point 203 at end 204 of ramp 200, to the top of a receiving container held by end-of-arm tooling assembly 300.
  • Referring back to FIG. 9, multi-planar upper surface of ramp 200 further defines Zone B, Zone C and Zone D. In the preferred embodiment, said zones have linear cross sections with a decreasing surface angle relative to level reference “x”. Thus, Angle B is greater than Angle C, which is in turn greater than Angle D. Using such a decreasing relationship of zone angles, the control system of the present invention can effectively manage flow of loose objects, such as pills.
  • FIGS. 11 through 14 illustrate pills 1 and 2 moving in train toward drop-off point 203 at forward end of ramp 200. Referring to FIG. 11, pill 1 accelerates at a different rate than pill 2 due to the surface angle difference on ramp 200. Referring to FIG. 12, both pill 1 and pill 2 are situated in the same zone along the upper surface of ramp 200 (Zone C shown on FIG. 9) and accelerating at the same rate; however, the velocity of pill 1 is greater than the velocity of pill 2 due to the increased time at Zone C's acceleration. Spacing between pill 1 and pill 2 is tracked along ramp 200, and when the minimum required spacing is maintained, the orientation of ramp 200 is not adjusted. However, when minimum required spacing between pill 1 and pill 2 is not maintained, corrective action is implemented by dynamic adjustment to the inclination of ramp 200. As FIG. 13 illustrates, ramp 200 can be oriented so that pill 1 travels in one flow direction, while pill 2 travels in the opposite flow direction. Once minimum spacing between pills 1 and 2 is obtained and observed, orientation of ramp 200 is returned to the position depicted in FIG. 14, thereby allowing both pill 1 and 2 to beneficially travel in the desired flow direction. The present invention also uses application of vibratory energy to ramp 200 along the longitudinal axis of said ramp to promote the desired flow of pills along the upper surface of said ramp.
  • In the preferred embodiment, ramp 200 is vibrated to impart energy on the objects situated on the upper surface of said ramp. Specifically, the ramp surface is vibrated along the longitudinal axis of said ramp, with dynamic close loop control of the amplitude and/or frequency of such vibration, to control orientation and flow of objects situated on said ramp 200. Additionally, the inclination of ramp 200 is dynamically adjustable so that gravitational force can be used to increase or decrease separation and flow direction of objects situated on said ramp.
  • The present invention utilizes a machine vision-based imaging sensor for closed-loop control of pill flow including, without limitation, flow of pills situated on the upper surface of ramp 200. Said imaging sensor is used to gather information regarding pill placement. Such information is conveyed to a computer processor, which in turn implements feed forward control logic to react to problems in real-time before pills are actually dispensed from a canister 100. With closed loop control on all drive components associated with pill flow and packaging, preemptive logic improves the delivery and accuracy of the overall handling process.
  • One embodiment of the imaging system of the present invention utilizes a reflective imaging device capable of controlling a plurality of light emitting devices over a range of different wavelengths. The reflected energy is mechanically and electronically filtered in order to track objects. In another embodiment, the imaging system of the present invention comprises a translucent rear illuminated surface for silhouetting objects in flow. The use of back lighting allows for maximum contrast and improved object tracking.
  • FIG. 15 depicts a perspective view of the components of end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 engaged with canister 100. In the preferred embodiment, actuators 310, light source 320, imaging sensor assembly 330, drive links 340 and container holder 350 (not shown) are disposed on the end-of-arm tooling assembly 300. Said end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 is translated proximate to a particular canister (containing a desired type of pills) using a gantry assembly as described above.
  • Referring to FIG. 15, end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 engages with a canister 100. Light source 320 directs light into light pipe 321 (depicted in FIG. 6) via light pipe interfaces (depicted in FIG. 4), thereby permitting transmission of light into canister 100. Such light from light source 320 permits illumination of ramp 200 with different light wavelengths. By way of example, but not limitation, such wavelengths can include white light at approximately 5500K, red light at approximately 630 nm, blue light at 470 nm, green light at approximately 525 nm and infrared at approximately 940 nm. The ability to dynamically change light wavelength allows the present invention to utilize the wavelength best suited for imaging the particular objects (pills) handled by the present invention.
  • Sensor assembly 330 electronically and mechanically filters incoming light to determine the optimum setting for tracking pills as said pills flow along the upper surface of ramp 200. In order to manage pill flow, the processing system of the present invention utilizes information obtained from sensor assembly 330 to compute the size and position of pills on ramp 200, confirm or deny pill placement and, if necessary, take corrective action. Frequently, such corrective action comprises transfer of mechanical energy to canister 100 by actuators 310 disposed on end-of-arm tooling assembly 300. Energy is transferred from said actuators 310 to canister 100 and its various components using actuator drive arms 311, which are connected to drive links 340. Said drive links 340 engage drive sockets 111 of canister 100 (depicted in FIGS. 4 and 5) to transfer mechanical energy to the components of canister 100 including, without limitation, ramp 200.
  • FIG. 16 depicts front view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention engaged with a canister of the present invention. Input ports 312 are provided on actuators 310, and allow data transfer from to said actuators to facilitate the feed forward control logic of the present invention. Actuator drive arms 311 mate with drive links to transmit energy to the components of canister 100.
  • FIG. 17 depicts a side perspective view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 of the present invention holding a blister pack tray 400 having a plurality of indentions 401 in packaging holder 350. End-of-arm tooling assembly 300 has optional handle 360. FIG. 18 depicts an end view of said end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention holding blister pack tray 400.
  • FIG. 19 depicts a side perspective view of an alternative embodiment of end-of-arm tooling assembly of the present invention holding vial 500 in vial holder 351. FIG. 20 depicts a side cut away view of an end-of-arm tooling assembly 300 holding vial 500 in vial holder 351, and engaged with canister 100 of the present invention.
  • As the loose objects (such as pills) flow through the region of interest on the upper surface of ramp 200, the contrast between such objects and the background allows the sensor to define object cross-section, and track each object. Reliability is improved when a color spectrum comparison and relative size comparison is conducted. In order to overcome reflectivity issues, the imaging sensor allows for the range of the color spectrum (visible and non-visible) to be used without hardware replacement. Varying the light source intensity and spectrum as needed allows the imaging sensor of the present invention to tune each counting sequence to the optimal conditions, improving effectiveness and enhancing object delivery.
  • A normal variant of reflective imaging is to back light the region of interest to produce an increased contrast, thus allowing for a less expensive imaging sensor to be deployed. Placing a light source behind the region of interest allows light to reach the imaging sensor of the present invention with full intensity. Such light is blocked when an object travels through the area of interest, thus allowing the image sensor the ability to define the object's cross-section and track.
  • A significant advantage of the present invention is found in the design of canister 100 and the means by which pills are controlled and counted directly from canister 100 into a prescription container (such as, for example, a blister pack or conventional vial) without any additional step or device for temporary storage of such pills.
  • FIG. 21 depicts an overhead view of a prior art blister pack tray, while FIG. 21A depicts a side view of the existing prior art blister pack tray depicted in FIG. 21. Existing prior art blister packaging typically comprises a film container base or tray 410 having a plurality of indentions or “blisters” 411 for receiving pills or other loose objects. Such conventional indentions are frequently arrayed in rows and columns. Frequently, such film containers lack desired stiffness or rigidity, and are susceptible to bending forces as depicted in FIG. 22, particularly in the regions between such rows and columns. As a result, prior art blister packs are frequently packaged in a cardboard clamshell or other similar device to stiffen the packaging while protecting the relatively frail film and foil.
  • FIG. 23 depicts an overhead view of an alternative blister tray 400 of the present invention having interlocking indentations or blisters 401 to increase stiffness while not compromising the sealing web. FIG. 23A depicts a side view of the blister design illustrated in FIG. 23. The alternative interlocking blister design of the present invention eliminates unsupported bend lines, resulting in a reduction of film deflection and an increase in overall rigidity of blister tray 400.
  • Blister tray 400 depicted in FIGS. 23 and 23A allows a single film layer to be constructed in a manner that increases the overall packing volume of pills (or other packaged loose objects) by arraying blisters in an interlocking pattern. The pattern layout ensures seal width is maintained for all blisters by decreasing wasted seal space between indentations. Such minimization of wasted seal space allows for a larger cross section to be obtained for each blister, thus supporting lager objects, or an increased number of objects in each blister. Additionally the interlocking pattern stiffens the film container by preventing bend line propagation between blisters.
  • The above-described invention has a number of particular features that should preferably be employed in combination, although each is useful separately without departure from the scope of the invention. While the preferred embodiment of the present invention is shown and described herein, it will be understood that the invention may be embodied otherwise than herein specifically illustrated or described, and that certain changes in form and arrangement of parts and the specific manner of practicing the invention may be made within the underlying idea or principles of the invention.

Claims (9)

  1. 1. An apparatus for dispensing loose objects comprising:
    a) a support frame;
    b) a plurality of canisters disposed within said support frame;
    c) a rail assembly;
    d) a dispensing assembly movably disposed on said rail assembly; and
    e) a processor for selectively positioning said dispensing assembly adjacent to at least one canister and dispensing loose objects from said at least one canister.
  2. 2. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said canisters are in a grid pattern.
  3. 3. The apparatus of claim 2, wherein said canisters further comprise:
    a) a housing;
    b) at least one opening in said housing;
    c) at least one inclined baffle;
    d) a gate assembly;
    e) a ramp having a first end and a second end, wherein said first end is pivotally connected to said housing, and pivots about a horizontal axis; and
    f) means for selectively raising and lowering said second end of said ramp.
  4. 4. The apparatus of claim 3, wherein the upper surface of said ramp defines a plurality of planes along the longitudinal axis of said ramp.
  5. 5. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said dispensing assembly further comprises at least one actuator.
  6. 6. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said dispensing assembly further comprises at least one light.
  7. 7. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said dispensing assembly further comprises at lease one package holder.
  8. 8. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said dispensing assembly comprises at least one optical sensor.
  9. 9. An apparatus for dispensing loose objects comprising:
    a) a support frame;
    b) a plurality of canisters disposed in a grid pattern within said support frame, wherein such canisters comprise:
    i. a housing;
    ii. at least one opening in said housing;
    iii. at least one inclined baffle;
    iv. a gate assembly;
    v. a ramp having a first end and a second end, wherein said first end is pivotally connected to said housing, and pivots about a horizontal axis; and
    vi. means for selectively raising and lowering said second end of said ramp;
    c) a rail assembly;
    d) a dispensing assembly movably disposed on said rail assembly; and
    e) a processor for selectively positioning said dispensing assembly adjacent to at least one canister and dispensing loose objects from said at least one canister.
US11975859 2006-10-23 2007-10-22 Method and apparatus for sorting, counting and packaging pharmaceutical drugs and other objects Abandoned US20080093372A1 (en)

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