The History of Pharmaceutical Blister Packaging Machines
The story of the first blister machines for packaging is a fascinating brew of entrepreneurs, technology, design and designers, problems and problem solvers, pharmaceutical development, discovery and even the transition from national to global markets.
The beginning of the 1960s saw pharmaceutical companies poised for rapid growth. Contraceptives were just coming out of the pipeline and many new products were in the pipeline. The regulatory framework that clearly marked the difference between “ethical” (via prescription) and “OTC” (over the counter) drugs was clear. Pharmaceutical companies were beginning to build marketing and commercial muscle to support the waiting discoveries in the pipeline.
Pharmaceutical packaging until the contraceptive was simple and bland compared to food or consumer markets. Boxes and lid, tubes and strips, the thrust until the contraceptive was to project seriousness almost to the point of being staid.
All of this was poised to change – and change it did with the launching of contraceptives.
Several threads run through this story: the type of sealing mechanism (platen or rotary) used in the machine, and where the machine technology was developed (in the early years, Germany or Italy). Even developments in blister materials impacted the development of blister machines.
The first pharmaceutical blister machines were developed in Germany. While Karl Klein did not get a patent for his VA1 machine, all indications are this is the pharmaceutical blister machine. Höfliger & Karg followed in 1964 with the Servac 150 and Uhlmann in 1965 with the KP1. The story of these early developments follows.
Karl Klein played a foundational role in the early growth of pharmaceutical blister packaging. He founded HASSIA in 1952 in Ranstad. Originally offering both machinery and contract packaging services, HASSIA VERPACKUNGEN eventually became two separate entities: HASSIA MACHINERY (HASSIA VERPACKUNGSMASCHINEN GMBH) and HASSIA PACKAGING. The contract packaging division is treated in a separate section of this blog.
At the beginning of the 1960s there were several standard types of packaging or container systems used for oral solid dose medicines: the box or sliding box, aluminum or glass tubes, small glass bottles, and strip packages. In 1961, Karl Klein, founder of HASSIA, developed a vacuum forming machine that produced thermoformed packages for small portions of coffee and similar products. Originally there was little interest on the part of the pharmaceutical industry in this initial breakthrough. HASSIA’s one pharmaceutical application was in 1962 – a HASSIA VA1 machine produced a peel-off blister for MELABON, an oblate capsule produced by Dr. Rentschler.
The arrival of contraceptives quickly generated interest in blister packaging. Originally launched in a strip package in Europe, pharmaceutical companies began an intense search for a package that assisted in compliance – and resulted in the birth of pharmaceutical blister packaging.
At INTERPACK in 1963 HASSIA showed the machine used to blister package Schering AG’s Anovlar. All indications are that this is the first pharmaceutical blister packaging machine though it was not patented.
HASSIA’s machine used platens for both “pre-heating” the forming film and for the sealing section. The forming and lidding webs progressed through the machine “intermittently.” The pacer for this “intermittent” action was the sealing section. Today platen sealing remains popular for pharmaceutical blister packaging machines.
The HASSIA VA1 used positive air pressure to form the pocket or cavity. The designer for Schering’s ground-breaking blister was Kurt Walter.
Karl Klein and HASSIA continued to grow rapidly through the late 1960s, acquiring Wolkogon in Bielefeld (HASSIA II). By 1973 HASSIA experienced financial problems and in 1974 the German court intervened. HASSIA I – the original machinery group founded in Randstad, was sold to IWKA, while HASSIA II, the Wolkogon Bielefeld operation, was sold to Klöckner Werke. Wolkogon was integrated into Klöckner Ferromatik Desma, the machinery division of Klöckner. Later on Klöckner bought Hänsel an formed a packaging machinery group including Wolkogon.
Das Dreiecksverhaltnis – The Triangular Relationship
Translated from Der Spiegel. Originally published as Issue 18 in 1974. Click here to go to original article in German.
Two renowned German corporations are battling over a packaging manufacturer. Both think they had bought the company.
Hans-Joerg Sendler, CEO of Klöckner-Werke AG, had just started his Easter vacation in early April when the bad news reached him the steel zsar all the way into the Bavarian Woods. The Quandt Group, one of the largest privately held economic empires in Germany, claimed ownership of one of the latest Klöckner acquisisions. In the steel industry since 1933, Sendler couldn’t believe it. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole career”.
Shortly before, Sendler’s colleagues from Duisburg learned that Karl Klein, owner of Hassia Verpackung AG, located in Ranstadt in Upper Hassia, had sold his company – one of the largest European specialty packaging firms – twice: first, to the steel concern from the river Ruhr, and then again to the Quandt conglomerate from Bad Homburg.
When Joachim Haeusler, CEO of Industriewerke Karlsruhe (IWKA), which is part of the Quandt Group, confirmed in a phone conversation with Herbert Gienow, Klöckner’s CFO, that he had signed the second contract, Sendler was sure: “this is fraud in the first degree”.
Klöckner had just printed their annual report, including the news about their acquisition of Hassia, and celebrated it as an ‘excellent addition’ to its own business unit of machinery and plastics conversion – over night, suddenly all Hassia shares were owned by the Quandt Group.
Dual salesman Klein, VP of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Friedberg-Buedingen, founded Hassia in 1953. During the next twenty years he grew the company into a market leader with sales of ~ DM 60 million and about 2000 employees in Germany and abroad. His factories wrapped and packaged pharmaceutical drugs, detergents, and food in England, Belgium, France, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland. Klein’s companies also manufactured packaging machinery which was exported to over 60 countries.
The company’s founder kept telling everyone that even in the future he would grow ‘organically’. As early as last year, though, when Klein converted his packaging company into an AG (capital: DM 6.4 million), his balance sheet showed a surprising minus of DM 140,000.00.
Last fall the Hessian Ministry of Economy bartered a contact between the ‘suffering company’ (Sendler) and Klöckner Werke, whose subsidiaries Ferromatik and Pentaplast have been producing similar machinery and packaging materials for retail and CPG customers. Gienow, member of the board at Klöckner and responsible for finance, legal and administrative affairs, lead the negotiations, and the parties quickly agreed: 85 % of Hassia should go to Duisburg.
On January 30th, 1974, Karl Klein and his wife Gerda, who had shared management of the company, signed a global agreement with Klöckner: they agreed to the conditions that had been negotiated.
One week later, two managers from Klöckner joined the Hassia board. By the end of February, the Klöckner board of directors officially approved the acquisition of a majority in Hessen. One month later, Klein even ‘took the initiative” (Sendler) and offered to sell his remaining 15 % to the folks from Duisburg. The steel managers agreed. In the afternoon of April 3rd a detailed contract was supposed to be signed, and the shares transferred. As late as April 2nd, Gienow remembers, “Hassia’s lawyer told me: We’ll be there tomorrow.”
But the folks from Hessen stayed. That night, Klein sold his entire company one more time – to the Quandt Group, and he immediately transferred all shares.
In the beginning, the betrayed Sendler thought that “Klein might have gotten 2 or 3 times the price from Quandt”. But then the steel managers began to guess about the role that Hans Graf von der Goltz, a trusted friend of Herbert Quandt’s and until 1971 boss of Klockner & Co might have played: Goltz is a member of the Kloeckner Werke board, and had known at least since late February about the contractual agreements between the folks from Duisburg and Hassia.
Quandt manager Hausler says, though, that when he signed he only knew that Hassia’s boss had “negotiated with Klöckner,” but that Klein had told him to the end that he “could still sell”.
On Wednesday last week, Klöckner managers Sendler and Gienow for the first time met with Arno Seeger and Joachim Hausler, representating Quandt, to get a feel for how to deal with this ménage a trois: Both corporations believe they own Hassia, and both were taken by surprise during their meeting at the Duesseldorf Industry Club that Klein had sold his company to Quandt and Klöckner – as Sendler says – “at nearly identical conditions”.
On one hand, they tried to “solve the problem amongst friends” (Hausler), and “not to fight over someone else’s cheating behavior” (Sendler), but on the other hand no one was willing to step back from their purchase.
In the meantime, the third partner in crime, packaging artist Klein, had retreated into a clinic in Kissingen…
Wolkogon, named after the founder, was sold by his widow to Karl Klein at HASSIA. The plant site became known as HASSIA II. In 1974 when German courts reorganized HASSIA, Wolkogon (HASSIA II) was sold to Klöckner Werke and became a subsidiary of the Ferromatik division.
At the beginning of 1981 Klöckner-Werke took a large equity position in Otto Hansel GmbH. Klöckner Werke added the Wolkogon (Bielefield) plant to this subsidiary and formed Klöckner Hänsel GmbH. In 1999 this was renamed Klöckner Medipack.
Klöckner sold the Medipak Group to Körber Aktiengesellschaft of Hamburg, on October 1, 2002. The Medipak Group at the time of the sale consisted of three companies:
- Klöckner Medipak GmbH, founded in 1934 with its registered office in Schloß Holte, Stukenbrock (Bielefeld) and its 100%-owned subsidiaries
- Klöckner Medipak, Inc., Clearwater, Florida / USA and
- Klöckner Medipak S.A.R.L., Paris.
The Four Schools of Pharmaceutical Blister Machines
The 1960s in Germany is the time when the pioneer schools of blister packaging machinery were founded: Hassia, Höflinger & Karg, Noack, and Wolkogon. Hassia and Wolkogon are the two major schools for platen sealing machines, and Höflinger & Karg (Bosch) and Noack for rotary sealing machines, eventually augmented by IMA in the late 70s. In fact, in terms of foundational process technologies, this site suggests that today blister machines do no significantly deviate from these roots.
The First EAS Machine
Most people today associate the name of Harry van Beek with Klöckner Pentaplast of America. Not so many are aware that prior to his moving to the United States, in September of 1973, Harry was working as Karl Klein’s personal assistant at HASSIA. In 1974 the contract packaging portion of HASSIA, as part of a court supervised reorganization, was acquired by Klöckner Werke, and was re-named Klöckner Pentapack.During this transition in 1974 a pharmacist from the Elisabeth Hospital in Tilburg and a doctor from the St. Radbout Hospital in Nijmegen (both in Holland) visited Harry in Hamont to speak about the need for Unit Dose packaging in hospitals. The pharmacist and the doctor had received a grant of 1 million Dutch Guilders from the Government (a lot of money at that time) to develop a safe drug distribution system for hospitals. About half of the grant went to constructing the first Eenheids Afleverings System (EAS) Unit Dose machine.The EAS machine became popular not only for hospital Unit Dose packaging in Europe but for smaller pre-production work, especially for early stability work (“probe and put-up stability”) in the United States.When control of Klöckner Werke passed to WCM in early 2001, Klöckner Pentapack and the EAS machine line were sold to Budelpack. The EAS today is manufactured by RCP Ranstadt GmbH and remains a popular machine. As far as is known the original prototype machine is still running.
The Uhlmann UPS 200
Thanks to Dieter Janek for this information.
Uhlmann also received a visit from the staff at St. Radboud Ziekenhuis Hospital at Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
They were asked to develop a blister package system to be used in hospitals. The hospital people wanted the ability to print the lidding at the hospital and include it as part of the patient’s records.Uhlmann review the situation with the local hospital to understand the potential for such a machine. Hospital budgets were low then and there was a significant risk that volumes would never develop to justify the developmental work.Uhlmann decided to build a small machine which could fulfill the needs of the hospitals but also could be adapted to other needs a markets – a universal packaging system (UPS).So the modular concept of the UPS 200 was created and patented and in 1972 presented to the market.
This concept was successful followed by the wider web model UPS300. The model was redesigned and modernized over the years to incorporate technology improvements. The successor of the original UPS 200 is the newer B1240.And, very much like the original EAS, it is believed the the first UPS 200 is still operating.
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