The COVID-19 Pandemic isn’t over. As a nation, we are down to only 55,480 new cases (March 15, from a January 19 high of 851,955), according to the New York Times. An endemic phase may be on the horizon, but the prevalence of the virus is still very real.
Over the last 2+ years, this pandemic’s prevalence has sent the demand for medical diagnostic test kits – and the accompanying packaging capabilities – soaring. From retail take-home tests to laboratory kits used by private and government-run medical facilities, citizens’ need to learn if they have contracted COVID-19, proactively treat it, and stop the spread, have become paramount.
At the onset of the pandemic, medical device packagers increased production of existing premade pouches and packages of flow wrapped or thermoformed (TFS) product – hand loaded, gas flushed, and sealed – in response. While valiant, even efforts to combine handloading and automation failed to meet the country’s needs.
Transformed Medical Diagnostic Test Kit Production
Fast forward to the present, and that need for prepackaged medical diagnostic test kits has morphed into something different, something new.
The sharp decline in human labor’s availability and packaging dexterity has caused many medical packagers to counter falling production rates and inefficiencies with increased wages and benefits and FULLY automated packaging solutions.
The packaging industry has decided to spend to shore up output gaps, and it seems to be working.
Top Contenders for The Medical Diagnostic Packaging Crown
In the arms race for medical diagnostic test kit packaging supremacy, flow wrapping and thermoformed packaging solutions are emerging as the clear favorites among producers and medical personnel alike. Moreover, while thermoformer machine can be instrumental in meeting industry requirements, advanced flow wrapping solutions have pulled ahead in many significant and practical ways.
Under close examination, it is not hard to understand why.
Why Choose Flow Wrapping for Medical Diagnostic Test Kit Packaging?
Your chosen packaging will always depend on the product. If seal inspection is required once the product has been opened, a thermoformer becomes your best option.
TFS provides a visible seal flange area for various inspections, including seal width, continuous seal, and abnormalities. Flow wrappers can also provide a peelable seal for inspection. However, due to the nature of the end seal, there will be visible wrinkles.
When no such requirement exists, and you ONLY need a hermetic seal that does not have to be verified with the end-user, the superior varied advantages of flow wrapping systems begin to emerge:
- Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) & Oxygen Analysis: Modern flow wrapping solutions, like those provided by Harpak-ULMA Packaging, include modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). However, flow wrapping systems also add residual oxygen analysis for the interior packaging – LIVE during production. This capability benefits not only preservation, shelf life, and quality control for the final product but also secondary packaging printing inspection and data integrity, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) data, and more.
- Cost-Effectiveness: The system’s total cost will always be tailored and adjusted to your unique needs and requirements. However, flow wrapping systems are widely known to be more cost-effective than TFS systems in almost every category, including materials, labor, and overall automation costs.
- Higher Production Speeds: Medical diagnostic test kits are generally assembled upstream of a flow wrap machine and ideally brought into the packaging system in a single uniform lane via automation. Product is then loaded, gas flushed, and heat-sealed at both ends via a circular/oval-shaped sealing jaw. The fluid process allows for some of the highest packaging speeds possible, efficiently creating up to 40 parts per minute (PPM) or more with automation. Compare that with the 12-15ppm average maximum output produced with human labor, and the ROI stands out.
- Retail Appeal: In previous iterations of flow wrap systems, premade pouches were produced with unsightly wrinkles in the packaging. They were functional but reduced the streamlined retail appeal. With the latest innovations in film spreading technology integrated into the primary packaging process, packages are smoother, more uniform, and possess none of the unattractive wrinkles at the seal edge packagers avoid.
Automatic Desiccant Integration
Optimal savings and improved retail appeal aren’t the only benefits that put flow wrapped packaging ahead. Medical diagnostic test kit packagers opt for advanced flow wrapping over other systems for another highly sought-after process element: automatic desiccant integration.
Desiccants – the small packaging devices that regulate oxygen and moisture within the medical packaging – arrive single file via automated feeders and smart feed belts. They are then automatically integrated into a customized arrangement (top or bottom) inside the packaging.
The package is flushed with nitrogen via gas lance and observed on a sophisticated feedback loop. This loop adjusts oxygen levels to the optimal amounts within the package live during processing without sacrificing production speeds.
Once the MAP levels are optimized, the flow wrap machine uses a foil seal to create a barrier against light, moisture, contamination, and any outside gaseous intrusion.
Overcoming Pandemic-based Packaging Challenges
Higher speeds, lower costs, better flexibility, smooth packaging, automated desiccant infeeding – these benefits all justify integrating automated flow wrapping. They are elements that will help you impress end-users and improve your bottom line when packaging medical diagnostic test kits.
But again, we are still very much in the grips of the pandemic.
As a result, your packaging needs may have shifted from speed and rate of return to more important factors such as sanitation, labor concerns, dexterous product handling, and other more pressing health-related issues caused by COVID-19.
Can opting for flow wrapped packaging for medical diagnostic test kits solve challenges in the current biological, health-focused climate?
Advanced flow wrap systems help you overcome specific challenges, long-term, which are both unique and essential to medical packaging:
More than food, automotive, or industrial packaging, medical packaging requires great care, finesse, and dexterity when handling and loading almost any product. However, human operators’ intrinsic dexterity can be very limited. The training to develop the necessary dexterity to best effect? Even more so. By combining automated product loading and MAP integration into one system, you can achieve the necessary handling dexterity to better safeguard your products from rejection and contamination and optimize your packaging operations, regardless of labor or market conditions.
Like product handling and dexterity, hygiene, sanitation, and contamination prevention play an undeniable role in medical diagnostic test kit packaging. With automated infeeding, you can load product and desiccants together (in a customized arrangement) without human interference, eliminating both human uncertainty and error and potentially harmful biological agents from the process.
Labor Solutions for Medical Diagnostic Test Kit Packaging
Like medical products, the demand for skilled and unskilled labor has skyrocketed in the past two years to the highest levels they have ever been. But despite packagers’ best efforts to raise wages and benefits and even offer college tuition reimbursements, labor shortages continue to plague packagers with little to no leniency.
In response, producers in the medical sector have turned to fully automated flow wrap equipment for their primary, secondary packaging, and palletizing operations. They’ve also shifted their goals from ramping capacity and rate of return to creating product with the resources they already have at their disposal.
These steps are an effort to reimagine their medical diagnostic test kit production lines while simultaneously attempting to avoid reduced staff, plateauing production, and increasing working hours and rates.
Speed is no longer the focus but efficiency and productivity.
Automated flow wrap packaging eliminates as much of the manual process as possible, improving overall packaging results, reallocating remaining human workers away from monotonous, repetitive, or even dangerous tasks, and allowing better worker retention and career advancement.
Opting for Flow Wrap. What Next?
The simple fact is that you may be feeling the crunch the entire medical packaging industry has felt since the pandemic began. You may be under the gun to deliver safe, top-quality product as quickly as possible. But doing so in such a regulated industry – especially with current labor availability – must be done carefully.
Planning and investing in a custom packaging strategy that works for you is the smart, forward-thinking move. It not only delivers product according to your requirements and those of the medical industry, but it also allows for future innovation.
Why such emphasis? The alternative is falling into the packaging trap that many other producers have succumbed to: purchasing faster, less expensive, sub-par machinery. These systems may be delivered more quickly, but they deliver inferior products with defects or wrinkles that fail to meet internal or external requirements.
The alternative is to spend your production budget on machinery that will need to be replaced after less than a year in operation, then spend more time and capital on the labor force to remove and install new equipment.
In a time when medical diagnostic test kits and other equipment are still in such high demand and labor in such short supply, can you afford to take the risk?
Talk to the experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging and discover the complete packaging solution for your medical diagnostic test kit packaging based on budget, requirements, plant space, and more.