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Speed and Precision in Vial Handling

HOF Sonderanlagenbau GmbH took the opportunity of the Achema 2022 trade show to unveil a new loading and unloading system for freeze-drying vials in pharmaceutical production – an innovation that epitomizes the finest in conveying and handling technology. The combination of magnetically propelled “movers” and two high-precision, ultrafast Stäubli Stericlean robots is truly impressive.

Freeze drying is the preservation method of choice for many pharmaceuticals that are supplied in vials for transfer to syringes in hospitals and doctors’ offices. This requires that the small vials are filled with the active ingredient and dried partially sealed in a freeze dryer.

Core Competence: Freeze Drying of Pharmaceutical Products

For the past 30 years, freeze dryers for pharmaceutical production have been the core competence of HOF Sonderanlagenbau GmbH, a company based in the small town of Lohra, southwest of Marburg in Hessen, Germany. HOF freeze dryers have been installed by many prominent pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies around the world, and the scope of supply often includes peripheral loading and unloading systems developed in-house.

As a technology leader in the highly specialised and sophisticated field of custom-engineered pharmaceutical production systems, HOF continues to set the benchmark for performance and degree of automation in freeze drying as well as associated loading and unloading systems. A recent example of this is the SIRIUS robot-assisted loading and unloading system which HOF unveiled for the first time at Achema 2022.

Fast, Flexible and Gentle on the Product

Just one look at a SIRIUS system in operation reveals that the HOF design team has developed something fundamentally new. The vials arrive from the bottling line in large numbers, with their caps only loosely attached. Magnetic movers then gently yet rapidly funnel them in nests of five into an oval circuit positioned in front of the freeze dryer, where two compact Stäubli TX2- 60 Stericlean six-axis robots with special grippers developed by HOF wait to pick up 50 vials at a time.

When 10 movers, each with five vials, have parked themselves at the loading station, the robots take turns lifting the 50 vials from the movers and placing them on the shelf of the freeze dryer. It’s a breathtaking spectacle: If just one of the approximately 13,000 vials per shelf were to topple over, it would trigger a disastrous domino effect, entailing costly product loss. Fortunately, however, this does not occur; the vials do not even touch each other, thanks to HOF’s engineering expertise and Stäubli’s high-precision robots.