Title:
Packaging Apparatus for Handling Pills and Associated Method
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A packaging apparatus and method are provided for depositing pills into a container. At least one cylindrical rotary slat is rotatable about a longitudinal axis and includes a radially inward portion defining a plurality of pill apertures. Each pill aperture receives a pill from a plurality of pills in an interior space of the respective cylinder at a first angular position of the rotary slat. A negative pressure system applies a negative pressure to the pill apertures to retain the pills therein as the rotary slat rotates at least from the first to a second angular position. An ejection mechanism ejects the pills from the respective pill apertures toward the interior space at the second angular position. A collection mechanism disposed adjacent to the radially inward portion of the rotary slat about the second angular position collects the ejected pills and directs the pills toward the container for deposition therein.



Inventors:
Aylward, John T. (New Bern, NC, US)
Application Number:
12/188535
Publication Date:
04/16/2009
Filing Date:
08/08/2008
Assignee:
Aylward Enterprises, LLC
Primary Class:
International Classes:
B65B57/20
View Patent Images:



Primary Examiner:
DURAND, PAUL R
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
ALSTON & BIRD LLP (CHARLOTTE, NC, US)
Claims:
That which is claimed:

1. An automated packaging apparatus for depositing a predetermined amount of pills into each of a series of containers, comprising: at least one rotary slat, each rotary slat being configured as a cylinder independently rotatable about a first axis extending longitudinally therethrough and comprising a radially inward portion defining a plurality of pill apertures therein, each pill aperture being adapted to receive a pill from a plurality of pills deposited into an interior space of the respective cylinder, the pills being received by the pill apertures at a first angular position of the at least one rotary slat; a negative pressure system in fluid communication with the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat, the negative pressure system being configured to apply a negative pressure to the pill apertures so as to retain the pills therein, as the at least one rotary slat rotates about the first axis at least from the first angular position to a second angular position; an ejection mechanism configured to be in communication with the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat at the second angular position to eject the respective pills therefrom toward the interior space; and a collection mechanism disposed adjacent to the radially inward portion of the at least one rotary slat about the second angular position, the collection mechanism being configured to collect the pills ejected from the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat and to direct the pills toward one of the series of containers for deposition therein.

2. An apparatus according to claim 1 wherein the first axis is substantially horizontally disposed, and the apparatus further comprises a conveyor device adapted to move the plurality of containers along a path substantially parallel to the first axis and into coincidence with the collection mechanism such that each container receives the predetermined amount of pills from the collection mechanism.

3. An apparatus according to claim 1 further comprising a counter device operably engaged with at least one of the collection mechanism and the at least one rotary slat, the counter device being configured to determine the predetermined amount of pills for deposition into each container.

4. An apparatus according to claim 1 further comprising a pill reservoir operably engaged with the at least one rotary slat, the pill reservoir being configured to receive the plurality of pills and to direct the plurality of pills into the interior space of the at least one rotary slat.

5. An apparatus according to claim 1 further comprising a drive mechanism operably engaged with and configured to selectively rotate each of the at least one rotary slat.

6. An apparatus according to claim 5 further comprising a controller device operably engaged with and configured to control the drive mechanism operably engaged with each of the at least one rotary slat such that each rotary slat can be independently rotated for different durations.

7. An apparatus according to claim 1 wherein the ejection mechanism further comprises a positive pressure system configured to impart a positive pressure to the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat about the second angular position to eject the respective pills therefrom toward the interior space.

8. An apparatus according to claim 7 wherein the positive pressure system further comprises an air blower configured to emit air into the pill apertures so as to eject the pills therefrom.

9. An apparatus according to claim 1 wherein the first axis is substantially horizontally disposed, and the apparatus further comprises a coarse-fill rotary slat and a fine-fill rotary slat coaxially disposed with and adjacent to each other.

10. An apparatus according to claim 9 wherein the collection mechanism further comprises a first chute for collecting pills ejected from the pill apertures of the coarse-fill rotary slat and a second chute for collecting pills ejected from the pills apertures of the fine-fill rotary slat, the first chute being spaced apart from the second chute along the first axis.

11. An apparatus according to claim 10 further comprising a conveyor device adapted to move the plurality of containers along a path substantially parallel to the first axis and into coincidence with at least the first chute such that each container serially receives a first portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the coarse-fill rotary slat.

12. An apparatus according to claim 11 further comprising a rotation device configured to rotate about a second axis perpendicular to the first axis, the rotation device being configured to receive a first container from the conveyor device for the first container to receive the first portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the coarse-fill rotary slat, and to rotate the first container from coincidence with the first chute into coincidence with the second chute for the first container to receive a second portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the fine-fill rotary slat, the first and second portions of the predetermined amount of pills additively forming the predetermined amount of pills, while a second container is received from the conveyor device in coincidence with the first chute for receiving the first portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the coarse-fill rotary slat commensurately with the first container receiving the second portion of the predetermined amount of pills.

13. An apparatus according to claim 1 wherein a radially outward portion of each cylindrical rotary slat defines a plurality of channels therein, each channel extending to a corresponding pill aperture and configured to prevent a pill received by the pill aperture from traveling therethrough.

14. An apparatus according to claim 13 wherein the negative pressure system is configured to be in fluid communication with the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat through the respective channels.

15. An apparatus according to claim 13 further comprising a shroud configured to at least partially cover the radially outward portion of the at least one rotary slat and extending at least from proximate to the first angular position to proximate to the second angular position, the negative pressure system being operably engaged with the shroud so as to apply the negative pressure to the pill apertures via the channels.

16. An apparatus according to claim 15 wherein the shroud is configured to completely surround the at least one rotary slat.

17. An apparatus according to claim 16 wherein the shroud is further configured to have the at least one rotary slat formed in situ.

18. An apparatus according to claim 17 wherein the at least one rotary slat is configured to be formed by a laser sintering device.

19. An apparatus according to claim 1 further comprising a drive mechanism operably engaged with and configured to rotate the at least one rotary slat.

20. A method of depositing a predetermined amount of pills into each of a series of containers, comprising: receiving a pill in each of a plurality of pill apertures defined by a radially inward portion of at least one rotary slat, each rotary slat being configured as a cylinder independently rotatable about a first axis extending longitudinally therethrough, from a plurality of pills deposited into an interior space of the respective cylinder; applying a negative pressure to the plurality of pill apertures with a negative pressure system, so as to retain the pills within the pill apertures, as the at least one rotary slat rotates about the first axis at least from a first angular position of the at least one rotary slat to a second angular position thereof; ejecting the pills from the pill apertures at the second angular position of the at least one rotary slat, the pills being ejected toward the interior space, with an ejection mechanism in communication with the pill apertures; and collecting the pills ejected from the pill apertures, and directing the pills toward one of the series of containers for deposition therein, with a collection mechanism disposed adjacent to the radially inward portion of the at least one rotary slat about the second angular position.

21. A method according to claim 20 wherein the first axis is substantially horizontally disposed, and the method further comprises moving the plurality of containers along a path substantially parallel to the first axis and into coincidence with the collection mechanism, with a conveyor device, such that each container receives the predetermined amount of pills from the collection mechanism.

22. A method according to claim 20 further comprising determining the predetermined amount of pills for deposition into each container with a counter device operably engaged with at least one of the collection mechanism and the at least one rotary slat.

23. A method according to claim 20 further comprising directing the plurality of pills into the interior space of the at least one rotary slat from a pill reservoir operably engaged with the at least one rotary slat and configured to receive the plurality of pills therein.

24. A method according to claim 20 further comprising selectively rotating each of the at least one rotary slat with a drive mechanism operably engaged therewith.

25. A method according to claim 24 further comprising controlling the drive mechanism operably engaged with each of the at least one rotary slat, with a controller device operably engaged therewith, such that each rotary slat can be independently rotated for different durations.

26. A method according to claim 20 wherein ejecting the pills further comprises imparting a positive pressure to the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat about the second angular position, with a positive pressure system, so as to eject the respective pills from the pill apertures toward the interior space.

27. A method according to claim 26 wherein ejecting the pills further comprises emitting air into the pill apertures so as to eject the pills therefrom, with a positive pressure system comprising an air blower.

28. A method according to claim 20 wherein the first axis is substantially horizontally disposed, and receiving a pill further comprises receiving a pill in each of a plurality of pill apertures defined by a radially inward portion of each of a coarse-fill rotary slat and a fine-fill rotary slat coaxially disposed with and adjacent to each other.

29. A method according to claim 28 wherein collecting the pills further comprises collecting the pills ejected from the pill apertures of the coarse-fill rotary slat with a first chute and collecting the pills ejected from the pills apertures of the fine-fill rotary slat with a second chute, the first chute being spaced apart from the second chute along the first axis.

30. A method according to claim 29 further comprising moving the plurality of containers, with a conveyor device, along a path substantially parallel to the first axis and into coincidence with at least the first chute such that each container serially receives a first portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the coarse-fill rotary slat.

31. A method according to claim 30 further comprising: receiving a first container from the conveyor device, with a rotation device configured to rotate about a second axis perpendicular to the first axis, in coincidence with the first chute for the first container to receive the first portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the coarse-fill rotary slat; rotating the first container from coincidence with the first chute into coincidence with the second chute for the first container to receive a second portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the fine-fill rotary slat, the first and second portions of the predetermined amount of pills additively forming the predetermined amount of pills; commensurately with rotating the first container into coincidence with the second chute, receiving a second container from the conveyor device in coincidence with the first chute for the second container to receive the first portion of the predetermined amount of pills from the coarse-fill rotary slat.

32. A method according to claim 20 wherein applying a negative pressure further comprises applying a negative pressure to the plurality of pill apertures through a plurality of channels defined by a radially outward portion of each cylindrical rotary slat, each channel extending to a corresponding pill aperture and configured to prevent a pill received by the pill aperture from traveling therethrough.

33. A method according to claim 20 wherein applying a negative pressure further comprises applying a negative pressure to the pill apertures through the channels via a shroud configured to at least partially cover the radially outward portion of the at least one rotary slat and extending at least from proximate to the first angular position to proximate to the second angular position, the negative pressure system being operably engaged with the shroud so as to apply the negative pressure therethrough.

34. A method according to claim 33 wherein the shroud is configured to completely surround the at least one rotary slat, and applying a negative pressure further comprises simultaneously applying a negative pressure to all of the pill apertures through the channels and via the shroud.

35. A method according to claim 34 further comprising forming the at least one rotary slat in situ within the shroud.

36. A method according to claim 35 wherein forming the at least one rotary slat further comprises forming the at least one rotary slat in situ within the shroud with a laser sintering device.

37. A method according to claim 20 further comprising rotating the at least one rotary slat with a drive mechanism operably engaged therewith.

Description:

CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

This application claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application No. 60/954,972, filed Aug. 9, 2007, which is incorporated by reference herein in its entirety.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

Embodiments of the present invention relate to packaging machines and, more particularly, to an automated packaging machine for filling containers with pills, and associated method.

2. Description of Related Art

Pharmaceutical medicines and associated packaging apparatus are typically subject to relatively strict consumer protection guidelines. For example, pills, capsules, and the like, must be produced and packaged in such a way as to at least meet the minimum sterility requirements mandated by federal regulations. In addition, the pills should be delivered into the packaging such that the contents accurately meet the claimed labeling “count”, i.e., each package includes exactly the predetermined number of pills. Notwithstanding the above, it is also desired to package the product in a mass production operation to offset costs typically attributed to a labor intensive operation in order to provide an economic product.

In the past, pill filling machines have been proposed that provide automated bottle counts by filling a hopper with pills and causing a plurality of the pills to be caught by a pill capturing device, such as an array of rotary slats. The rotary slats drop the captured pills into a plurality of bottles disposed in alignment with the dropping pills. The bottles are distributed along an endless conveyor belt that is timed to advance and stop the bottles according to the filling operation.

Conventional pill capturing devices more particularly include a series of rotary slats each configured to receive, hold, and move a plurality of capsules or pills along a closed path. The rotary slats are typically discs fixed on a rotatable shaft and have a plurality of openings in the outer peripheral edge portion thereof for capturing individual pills. Accordingly, the closed path is arcuate and generally disposed between a pill hopper and discharge area above the conveyor belt. By the rotary action of the slat, the pills move in a direction normal to the conveyor belt. The pill capturing device then generally discharges the pills by rotating the slats, which move corresponding to the closed path, such that the pills fall out of the respective openings at the filling station. The pills are often funneled through a chute that empties into a corresponding bottle.

The “count,” or number of pills in the bottle, is determined by positioning the bottles in the pill dropping zone for a predetermined time. The duration of the filling operation for each bottle corresponds to the number of openings in each slat that the machine is capable of delivering to the bottles per unit of time. The duration of the filling operation, speed of the rotary slats, and configuration of the pill capturing device are used to calculate the count.

Unfortunately, if the pill capturing device fails to capture a pill in each and every cavity or receptacle, or if a pill should mistakenly be diverted, at least one of the bottles can be improperly filled. The conventional solution to this problem is to situate an operator adjacent to the slats to ensure that each receptacle is filled with a pill. If a pill is missing, the operator manually places a pill in the receptacle. Such an approach involves labor costs and can be unsatisfactory for sterility purposes. In addition, the accuracy of the count of each bottle is largely determined by the operator and, as such, a fully and consistently accurate count cannot be guaranteed.

U.S. Pat. No. 6,185,901 to Aylward, which is incorporated herein by reference, provides an exemplary solution to this problem by way of a machine with independently driven rotary slats. The pills are allowed to fall into an exterior receptacle of a rotary slat and, in one embodiment, passed under a rotary brush in an attempt to prevent two pills from being disposed in the same receptacle. A separate counting device is associated with each rotary slat for counting each pill as it falls from the slat into the container. A positive count is provided for each container and improperly filled slats will not affect the total count for that container. If a particular container has a low count, the respective slat can be further rotated to fill the container. Because the slats are independently driven, the other slats can remain stationary to prevent overfilling. Thus, the machine permits an accurate filling of each bottle.

One alternative apparatus is a rotatable drum, as provided in U.S. Pat. No. 4,094,439 to List. The rotatable drum includes a plurality of parallel rows of throughgoing holes that constitute receptacles for dragees. The dragees enter the receptacles in the drum from the interior of the drum at an inner input location, exit to the exterior of the drum at an outer retrieval location, and are filled into bottles. An ordering device facilitates the entry of the dragees into the receptacles, and feeler blades engage the receptacles. If any of the receptacles in an axially extending row do not contain a dragee, one of the feeler blades actuates a bolt pusher, which prevents any of the dragees in the row from being filled into the bottles. Instead, a solenoid and knockout bar empty the receptacles of the row. By preventing the bottles to be filled from partially filled rows of receptacles, the apparatus prevents the different bottles from being filled at different rates.

Undesirably, the additional mechanical components that are required for emptying the partially filled rows of apertures increase the complexity, cost, and likelihood of failure of the apparatus. Additionally, emptying the partially filled rows slows the process of filling the bottles because no pills are dispensed from those rows.

Accordingly, there is a great need for a packaging apparatus which provides an accurate count for each container and operates at a high speed. The apparatus should require a minimum of operator intervention. Additionally, the apparatus should be cost effective, both in initial cost and maintenance costs.

BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The above and other needs are met by embodiments of the present invention which, according to one aspect, provides an automated packaging apparatus for depositing a predetermined amount of pills into each of a series of containers. Such an apparatus comprises at least one rotary slat. Each rotary slat is configured as a cylinder independently rotatable about a first axis extending longitudinally therethrough and comprising a radially inward portion defining a plurality of pill apertures therein. Each pill aperture is adapted to receive a pill from a plurality of pills deposited into an interior space of the respective cylinder, wherein the pills are received by the pill apertures at a first angular position of the at least one rotary slat. A negative pressure system is in fluid communication with the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat. The negative pressure system is configured to apply a negative pressure to the pill apertures so as to retain the pills therein, as the at least one rotary slat rotates about the first axis at least from the first angular position to a second angular position. An ejection mechanism is configured to be in communication with the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat at the second angular position so as to eject the respective pills therefrom toward the interior space. A collection mechanism is disposed adjacent to the radially inward portion of the at least one rotary slat about the second angular position. The collection mechanism is configured to collect the pills ejected from the pill apertures of the at least one rotary slat and to direct the pills toward one of the series of containers for deposition therein.

Another aspect of the present invention comprises a method of depositing a predetermined amount of pills into each of a series of containers. Such a method includes receiving a pill in each of a plurality of pill apertures defined by a radially inward portion of at least one rotary slat from a plurality of pills deposited into an interior space of the respective cylinder, wherein each rotary slat is configured as a cylinder independently rotatable about a first axis extending longitudinally therethrough. A negative pressure is applied to the plurality of pill apertures with a negative pressure system, so as to retain the pills within the pill apertures, as the at least one rotary slat rotates about the first axis at least from a first angular position of the at least one rotary slat to a second angular position thereof. The pills are ejected from the pill apertures at the second angular position of the at least one rotary slat, toward the interior space, with an ejection mechanism in communication with the pill apertures. The pills ejected from the pill apertures are collected with a collection mechanism disposed adjacent to the radially inward portion of the at least one rotary slat about the second angular position, and directed toward one of the series of containers for deposition therein.

Thus, embodiments of the present invention include a packaging apparatus and associated method providing an accurate count of pills dispensed to each container. Such an apparatus requires a minimum of operator intervention, and can operate at a high speed. Additionally, such an apparatus is cost effective, both in initial cost and maintenance cost.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE SEVERAL VIEWS OF THE DRAWINGS

Having thus described the invention in general terms, reference will now be made to the accompanying drawings, which are not necessarily drawn to scale, wherein:

FIGS. 1-3 are front perspective views of a pill handling apparatus according to one embodiment of the present invention;

FIG. 4 is a rear perspective view of the pill handling apparatus of FIG. 1;

FIG. 5 is a magnified perspective view of a rotary slat implemented in the pill handling apparatus of FIG. 1; and

FIG. 6 is a perspective view of a pill handling apparatus according to an alternate embodiment of the present invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION

The present invention now will be described more fully hereinafter with reference to the accompanying drawings, in which preferred embodiments of the invention are shown. This invention may, however, be embodied in many different forms and should not be construed as limited to the embodiments set forth herein; rather, these embodiments are provided so that this disclosure will be thorough and complete, and will fully convey the scope of the invention to those skilled in the art. Like numbers refer to like elements throughout.

Embodiments of the present invention are generally directed to a pill handling apparatus 10, such as an automated packaging machine. Such a pill handling apparatus can be used for dispensing pills into containers, as discussed, for example, in U.S. Pat. No. 6,185,901 to Aylward, and in U.S. Pat. No. 6,401,429 to Aylward, the contents of which are incorporated herein by reference. In other embodiments, such a pill handling apparatus can be used for other handling operations, besides pill packaging, such as transporting pills during manufacture, inspection, or the like.

As illustrated in FIGS. 1-4, the pill handling apparatus 10 is adapted to deliver pills 12 into a series of containers 16. As used herein, the term “pill” is not intended to be limiting and includes any discrete articles of the type used in the pharmaceutical industry or otherwise, including, but not limited to, capsules, caplets, gelcaps, dragees, and tablets. Similarly, the receiving containers 16, although illustrated as bottles throughout, are not limited thereto and can be any of various configurations which provide an opening for receiving discrete articles therein, such as pouches or boxes.

The pill handling apparatus 10 includes one or more rotary slats 18 for receiving pills and transporting the pills to the receiving containers 16. Each rotary slat 18 is generally configured as a cylinder, wherein the plurality of pills is received within the inner or interior portion 20 thereof defined by an inner surface. The inner surface further defines receptacles or pill apertures 22 along one or more paths about the rotary slat 18. For example, the slats 18 are illustrated to have a single path of receptacles 22 along the inner surface 20. In some instances, the inner surface of each rotary slat 18 can define a continuous groove or slot (see, e.g., FIG. 5) that extends about the inner circumference of the cylinder around the slat 18, with the receptacles 22 being defined in the groove so that the pills 12 are received by each groove and guided thereby into the receptacles 22. While the receptacles 22 are illustrated to be pocket-like apertures that extend outward from the interior 20 of the slat 18, the apertures can have other configurations. For example, the apertures can be holes, grooves, flat portions on the interior of the slat 18, or the like. Thus, the receptacles 22 can define positions on the inner surface of the slat 18 where the pills are received, i.e., positioned, and held during transport of the pills to the containers 16. The receptacles need not define a contour that corresponds to the shape of the pills, and the receptacles can be provided with or without the groove(s). That is, the receptacles can be defined on or by the inner surface of the slat, or on or by the surface of an outwardly-extending groove, as shown in FIG. 5.

As shown in FIGS. 1-4, the pills 12 are fed into the interior portion of the cylindrical rotary slat(s) 18 from a reservoir 14, by way of a chute 14a extending therebetween. If necessary, the opposed lateral sides of the rotary slat(s) 18 may have retaining plates 20a operably engaged therewith for retaining the pills 12 within the common interior portion 20 of the cylindrical rotary slat(s) 18. Only one such retaining plate 20a is shown in the figures for facilitating clarity thereof, though one skilled in the art will appreciate that an opposing retaining plate 20a may be necessary for retaining the pills 12 within the cylinder. In some instances, a controller or controller device 46 may also be in communication with a level sensor (not shown) within the common interior portion, and a reservoir gate switch (not shown) controlling a reservoir gate (not shown) disposed between the reservoir 14 and the common interior portion of the rotary slats 18 (i.e., along the chute 14a). The level sensor may be configured to detect the quantity of pills 12 in the common interior space 20 and to communicate a corresponding value or signal to the controller 46 so as to appropriately control the feed of the pills from the reservoir 14 via the reservoir gate / reservoir gate switch. For example, the level sensor can detect the level of pills 12 in the common interior space of the rotary slats 18 and, when the controller 46 detects that the level of pills 12 is below the desired level, the controller 46 signals the reservoir gate switch to open the reservoir gate to release more pills from the reservoir into the common interior space 20. By opening and closing the reservoir gate, the controller 46 maintains a desired number of pills 12 within the cylinder defined by the rotary slats 18. The desired level of pills 12 may thus be adjusted, for example, to optimize the seating of pills 12 in the pill apertures 22 and/or to prevent wear or breaking of the pills 12 caused by overfilling of the common interior space. In some instances, a product inspection/sorting system (see, e.g., element 9 in FIG. 6) may be disposed between the reservoir 14 and the interior space 20 so as to, for example, sort the pills 12 being forwarded to the interior space 20 or to remove damaged and/or defective pills 12 to prevent such pills from being forwarded to the interior space 20.

Each slat 18 may be independently engaged with and rotated by a respective drive arrangement or mechanism (not shown) to transport pills independently of the other slats 18. Each rotary slat 18 rotates in a first direction 19 defining an arcuate delivery path from a first pill capture or first angular position 21 to a second release or second angular position 23, where the pill 12 is released. The release position 23 is generally about 180 degrees away from the first pill capture position 21. In one embodiment, the first angular position 21 may be, for instance, about the “six o'clock” position, while the second angular position 23 may be, for instance, about the “twelve o'clock” position. The drive arrangement may be configured, for example, to engage the outer surface 14 of the rotary slat 18 by friction or geared engagement to turn the rotary slat in the first direction 19.

The controller 46 may also be configured to control the operation of the drive arrangement(s) independently of each other such that the rotary slats 18 can be independently rotated at various dissimilar speeds, if desired or appropriate. For example, each slat 18 can be rotated at a fast speed during the initial portion of the pill filling operation until a predetermined number of the pills 12 is delivered to the respective container 16 and subsequently rotated at a slower speed to finish the filling operation and to prevent under-filling or over-filling of the container 16. By rotating the various rotary slats at dissimilar speeds, e.g., rotating one slat at relatively fast speed while another slat is rotated at a relatively slow speed (or stopped), the pills can be dispensed from the different slats at different rates. Additionally, the controller 46 can alternately accelerate and decelerate the rotary slats, individually or in unison, to cause a jerking or vibratory motion in the rotary slats 18 and agitate the pills 12. Such agitation of the pills 12 can be useful in encouraging the pills 12 to become seated in the pill receptacles 22.

In some embodiments, a negative pressure or vacuum assembly 90 may be disposed in fluid communication with each of the rotary slats 18 to apply suction, or draw air into, a portion of the receptacles 22 of each rotary slat 18 through, for example, a channel 22a extending from the radially outward portion 18a of the rotary slat 18 to the receptacles or apertures 22, so as to act upon pills to be received by or retained within the receptacles 22. In particular, the vacuum assembly 90 may include one or more vacuum shrouds 30 (wherein a single shroud 30 is illustrated) disposed adjacent to the rotary slat(s) 18 so as to extend at least partially about the radially outward portion 18a thereof. In one embodiment, the shroud 30 extends at least from about the first angular position 21 of the rotary slat 18 to about the second angular position 23. Air is drawn from the shroud 30 by a fan, pump, or other appropriate low pressure source through a respective vacuum port 32. As shown, channels or air passages 22a are formed within the rotary slat 18 and lead outwardly from respective receptacles 22. Thus, each channel 22a fluidly connects one of the receptacles 22 about the inner circumference or inner surface of the slat 18 to the radially outward portion 18a of the slat 18, such that the receptacles 22 can be affected by suction applied via the shroud 30. As such, the receptacles 22 temporarily disposed between the first angular position 21 and the second angular position 23 are temporarily disposed in fluid communication with the suction applied via the shroud 30 such that, as air drawn from the shroud by the vacuum port 32, air is drawn into the receptacles and through the air passages or channels 22a. The disposition of the receptacles, in this regard, is referred to herein as “temporary” because the rotary slats are generally being rotated when the pill handling apparatus 10 is used. Thus, the vacuum assembly 90 can selectively draw air into or apply suction to the receptacles 22 according to the rotational position of each rotary slat 18 so that the pills 12 are urged into the receptacles 22 at a first angular position (e.g., the “capture” position 21 about the six o'clock position of the rotary slat 18) and released from the receptacles 22 at a second angular position (e.g., the release position 23 for dispensing the pills 12 into the containers 16).

Thus, pills 12 deposited into the interior portion of the cylindrical rotary slats 18 are urged toward receipt and capture by the receptacles 22 because of the air currents and pressure differentials present at the receptacles due to the suction imparted by the vacuum assembly 90 via the shroud 30. In some cases, the pills, once seated in the receptacles, partially or entirely block the air passages 22a. Thus, these descriptions relate to configurations wherein each seated pill completely seals the receiving receptacle to prevent further air flow, configurations wherein each seated pill partially seals the receiving receptacle to limit further air flow, and configurations wherein air flow is permitted without significant reduction by a pill seated in a receptacle. As a receptacle arrives at the release or second angular position 23, the channel 22a associated therewith loses fluid communication with the vacuum shroud 30 and experiences atmospheric pressure, or a positive pressure, such that the pill 12 is released from the receptacle 22 to be received by a container 16. That is, each channel 22a is disposed under the shroud 30 while the associated receptacle 22 is rotated from the first angular position 21 toward the second angular or release position 23 such that the suction retains the pill in the associated receptacle 22. However, as each receptacle 22 reaches the release or second angular position 23, the associated channel 22a is rotated beyond the shroud 30 so that the pill is no longer held in the receptacle 22 by suction. One skilled in the art will appreciate, however, that other configurations of vacuum assemblies 90 can be used to provide the desired suction for controlling the seating the pills in the rotary slats. Also, while the illustrated vacuum assembly 90 is used to maintain the pills in the receptacles between the capture and release positions, a shroud or cover can be additionally or alternatively provided about the inner circumference of the cylindrical rotary slat for preventing the release of the pills from the receptacles.

In some embodiments of the present invention, the pills can be released from the receptacles 22 at the release or second angular position 23 such that the pills fall therefrom, without being positively discharged from the slats 18. Alternatively, a positive pressure or blower assembly 95, or other suitable ejection mechanism, can be disposed in fluid communication with each rotary slat (for example, via the channel 22a) to blow air into the slat such that air is expelled inwardly toward the inner portion 20 of the cylindrical rotary slat, from each receptacle that arrives at the release or second angular position 23. In particular, the blower assembly 95 can include one or more blower shrouds 34 (wherein a single blower shroud 34 is illustrated) disposed adjacent to a respective rotary slat 18. Air is provided to the blower shroud 34 by a pump, fan, or high pressure source through a blower port 36. The blower shroud is disposed proximate to the release position 23, and expels air from the receptacle 22 at the release position by way of the air passage 22a associated with that receptacle. The expelled air assists to dislodge the pill captured by the receptacle in order for the pill to be released and dispensed into the respective container 16. Thus, as each receptacle arrives at the release position 23 by movement of the rotary slat, any pill seated in the receptacle is urged to be released by the air provided by the blower shroud 34. In some instances, other positive pressure mechanisms, such as particular nozzles (not shown) in communication with the blower assembly 95, may be implemented to provide a more targeted approach to the dislodgement of pills from the receptacles. One skilled in the art will appreciate, however, that the receptacles 22 at the second angular position may, in some instances, experience a discontinuance of the suction applied by the vacuum assembly 90 and, as a result, may fall from the receptacles 22 under the influence of gravity. In such instances, the blower assembly 95/blower shroud 34 may not be necessary.

One skilled in the art will further appreciate that, if a blower assembly 95 is implemented, a separate blower shroud 34 may not necessarily be required, as a single shroud may be appropriately partitioned to provide separate vacuum 30 and blower 34 shroud portions. In still other instances, such a single partitioned shroud may extend completely about the rotary slats 18 so as to cover the radially outward portions 18a thereof. In such instances, the laterally outward portions of the shroud (i.e., along the axis defined by the rotary slats 18) may extend radially inward or otherwise engage the laterally outermost slat(s) so as to provide at least a partial seal therebetween. The at least partial seal serves to direct the suction or positive pressure applied through the shroud to be directed through the channels 22a of the rotary slats 18.

Such an example of a shroud entirely encompassing the rotary slats 18 is shown in FIG. 6. In such an example, the entire shroud may comprise a vacuum shroud 30 in communication with a low pressure source such that suction can be simultaneously applied to all receptacles 22 of the rotary slats 18 via the respective channels 22a. In this manner, the continuously-applied suction causes all receptacles 22 of the rotary slats 18 to remain “primed” (i.e., to have a pill 12 drawn thereto and disposed and retained within the receptacle 22), as long as a sufficient amount of the pills 12 is introduced into the interior 20 of the slats 18 and the vacuum assembly 90 remains actuated. In such an instance, the pills 12 must be positively released or discharged from the receptacles 22 at the release or second angular position 23 such that the pills are ejected therefrom. Such a positive ejection or discharge of the pills may be accomplished, for example, by way of the positive pressure or blower assembly 95, or other suitable ejection mechanism, disposed in fluid communication with each rotary slat (for example, via the channel 22a) to blow air toward the slat such that air (and the pill 12 retained in a particular receptacle 22 arriving at the release or second angular position 23) is expelled inwardly toward the inner portion 20 of the cylindrical rotary slat, wherein the characteristics of the expelled air are sufficient to overcome the suction imparted to the pill 12 by the vacuum assembly 90. Accordingly, the blower shroud(s) 34 or nozzle(s) 35 or other suitable mechanisms, associated with the positive pressure or blower assembly 95, or other suitable ejection mechanism for communicating the positive pressure to the slats 18, may be disposed within the vacuum shroud 30 about the release position 23. One implication of such a “continuous suction” configuration may be that individually-rotatable slats 18 may not necessarily required since the blower shroud(s) 34 or nozzle(s) or other suitable mechanisms for communicating the positive pressure to the slats 18 (the positive pressure being sufficient to overcome the suction imparted to the pill 12 by the vacuum assembly 90) may be individually controllable so as to provide “on-demand” release of selected pills from the slat(s) 18 for controlling the pill dispensation count, as the pills are dispensed into the respective container 16 via a single chute 62c.

Where an encompassing single shroud is provided, the rotary slat(s) 18 may be formed in situ such that the shroud may be provided as an integral, single-piece component. In such instances, a suitable forming device such as, for example, a laser sintering device may be implemented to form the rotary slat(s) 18 within the shroud. A variety of materials can be used for the construction of the rotary slats 18 including, but not limited to, metals, metal alloys, and polymers. In some instances, the rotary slats 18 are formed of a durable, low friction material that is cost effective for manufacture, such as a compound comprising acrylonitrile-butadiene-sytrene and polytetrafluoroethylene. Depending on the type of pills 12 fed by the rotary slats 18, it may also be important that the material of the rotary slats 18 does not chemically affect the pills 12. Other components of the pill handling apparatus 10 can be made of the same or different materials. For example, the chutes 62 may be comprised of an acetal or Delrin™ polymer, available from DuPont.

In order to determine whether a pill is received by each receptacle 22, one or more inspection devices (not shown) may be disposed and arranged to inspect each particular rotary slat so as to detect pills received by and transported in the receptacles thereof In some cases, the inspection device may be, for example, an optical imaging device, such as a camera, configured to inspect the slats for pills by detecting an image of each pill to determine the size, shape, and/or other characteristics of the pill. Thus, the inspection devices can be configured to determine the presence of the pills in the receptacles and/or determine a characteristic of the pills, such as whether the pills are broken or otherwise defective. If provided, the inspection devices are disposed in communication with the controller 46, e.g., so that the controller can use the devices to determine, for example, if pills are transported and delivered by each receptacle to the containers and the number of pills deposited in each container.

The rotary slat(s) 18 may, in some instances, be disposed above a filling station 60 where a respective container 16 receives pills. More particularly, a collection mechanism such as one or more chutes 62 may be disposed with respect to the release or second angular position 23 of the rotary slat(s) 18 to guide pills from the respective rotary slat 18 to a container 16 at the filling station 60. Accordingly, as a receptacle 22 having a pill therein arrives at the release position 23, the pill is released from the receptacle and is collected by a chute 62. The release may be facilitated by gravity, as the receptacle arriving at the release position loses fluid communication with the vacuum shroud 30. The release of the pill may also, or alternatively, be facilitated by air from a blower shroud 34 being expelled through the receptacle at the release position.

In one embodiment, the container 16 may be brought into position under the chute(s) 62 by a conveyor device 70 or other suitable container-movement system, as will be appreciated by one skilled in the art, wherein the container 16 may be appropriately placed, for example, by mechanical stops or any number of placement arrangements (see, e.g., gating mechanism/stop gate 64 in FIG. 6). In some instances, one or more of the rotary slats 18 may be used as a “coarse-fill” section of the pill handling apparatus 10, while at least one remaining slat is used as a “fine-fill” section of the pill handling apparatus 10, and wherein the coarse-fill and fine-fill slats are disposed about opposite lateral ends of the cylinder defined by the rotary slats 18. A pill handling apparatus 10 arranged in this manner may thus include two separate chutes 62a, 62b, wherein one chute 62a extends from the release position 23 of the coarse-fill slats and outwardly of one lateral end of the cylinder defined by the rotary slats 18 to a coarse-fill filling station 60a, while the other chute 62b extends from the release position 23 of the fine-fill rotary slats and outwardly of the other lateral end of the cylinder defined by the rotary slats 18 to a fine-fill filling station 60b (i.e., such that the first and second chutes 62a, 62b are separated along a first axis of the cylinder defined by the rotary slats 18). In such instances, a first container 16a is first transported by the conveyor 70 or other container-movement system, to a position under the first chute 62a extending from the coarse-fill rotary slats, wherein the coarse-fill rotary slats are operated to release a particular number of pills (i.e., a bulk fill) into the first chute 62a and then into the first container 16a at the coarse-fill filling station 60a. In the fill position under the first chute 62a, the first container 16a is also disposed in engagement with a rotation device 80. As such, once the first container 16a receives the bulk fill via the first chute 62a, the rotation device 80 is actuated to rotate the first container 16a about a second axis, the second axis being substantially perpendicularly disposed with respect to the first axis of the cylinder defined by the rotary slats 18, to a position under the second chute 62b at the fine-fill filling station 60b. Once the first container 16a is disposed under the second chute 62b extending from the fine-fill rotary slats, the fine-fill rotary slats are operated to release enough pills (i.e., a “top up” fill) to complete the desired count of pills in the first container 16a. Commensurately with the first container 16a being rotated by the rotation device 80 to the position under the second chute 62b, the conveyor 70 is actuated to move a second container 16b to the position under the first chute 62a for receiving the bulk fill from the coarse-fill rotary slats. Accordingly, as configured, the first container 16a may be receiving the fine fill from the second chute 62b while the second container 16b is receiving the coarse fill from the first chute 62a.

The number of pills 12 delivered to each container 16a, 16b can be determined and used to direct the independent operation of the rotary slats 18. In this regard, a counting device or counter device (see, e.g., element 66 in FIG. 6) can be associated with each filling station 60a, 60b. Each counting device can be disposed between a rotary slat 18 and the respective container 16. For example, each counting device can be positioned adjacent, above, below, or within a respective chute 62a, 62b so that any pill 12 which travels through each chute will be detected by the counting device. While the counting devices and inspection device may be different components, a single detection device can alternatively be provided in correspondence with each of the coarse-fill and fine-fill rotary slats to perform the counting and/or inspecting of the pills. For example, either of the counting device(s) or inspection device(s) can be configured to detect the pills by counting and/or inspecting the pills. Further, one skilled in the art will appreciate that, if each rotary slat has more than one circumferential row or path of receptacles, a single chute can direct the pills from all of the rows of a particular slat toward a single container. In other embodiments, however, each chute may direct pills 12 from multiple rotary slats 18 into a single container 16 to provide rapid filling.

One exemplary counting device includes an infrared light source and a light receiver positioned substantially opposite the light source across a central passage of the counting device. The light source generates a light beam that is detected by the opposing light receiver. When the light beam is interrupted by a falling pill 12, the light receiver transmits a signal which increases the count in the controller 46. Thus, the number of interruptions corresponds to the number of pills 12 delivered into a particular container 16. In some embodiments, however, the controller 46 may be configured to control the quantity of pills 12 provided in the reservoir 14. For example, a level sensor can detect the quantity of pills 12 in the reservoir 14. The quantity may be determined optically, by weight, or otherwise. The level sensor communicates a corresponding value or signal to the controller 46. When the controller 46 detects that the level of pills 12 in the reservoir 14 is below the desired level, the controller 46 can open a reservoir gate that controls the passage of pills 12 from a bulk bin to the reservoir 14, thereby maintaining a desired number of pills 12 in the reservoir 14. The desired level of pills 12 in the reservoir 14 can be adjusted to optimize the seating of pills 12 in the receptacles 22 of the slats 18 and to prevent wearing or breaking of the pills 12 caused by overfilling of the reservoir 14.

After the containers 16 at the filling station(s) 60 have been filled, the containers 16 are transported away from the filling stations 60 for further processing or packaging and different, unfilled containers 16 are transported to the filling station(s) 60. As previously discussed, for example, the containers 16 can be supported by a conveyor 70 (i.e., in the form of a belt) that is driven by a motor (not shown), in a direction 71 parallel to the first axis about which the rotary slats 18 rotate. Stop gates 64 (see, e.g., FIG. 6) may be disposed proximate to the conveyor 70 and configured to be extended to block the path of the containers on the conveyor 70 and hold the containers in positions corresponding to the filling station(s) 60. A stop gate 64 can be extended to block the path of the unfilled containers before entering the filling station(s) 60. Alternatively, for example, a screw auger (not shown) can be used to transport the containers and position the containers at the filling station(s) 60. The screw auger can maintain the containers at consecutively spaced intervals, and as the screw auger is rotated, each of the containers is transported toward or away from the filling station(s) 60. In other instances, separate screw augers or conveyors can be provided for transporting containers toward the filling station(s) and for transporting containers away from the filling station(s) 60. Rotation of the screw auger or conveyor can be adjusted to control the speed and direction of the movement of the containers. In any case, the operation of the container-movement system may be controlled by the controller 46.

Many modifications and other embodiments of the invention will come to mind to one skilled in the art to which this invention pertains having the benefit of the teachings presented in the foregoing descriptions and the associated drawings. Therefore, it is to be understood that the invention is not to be limited to the specific embodiments disclosed and that modifications and other embodiments are intended to be included within the scope of the appended claims. Although specific terms are employed herein, they are used in a generic and descriptive sense only and not for purposes of limitation.