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Pharmaceutical Packaging: Material Handling Strategies for the Three Major Categories

Generally speaking, pharmaceutical manufacturers will ship their products within three types of packaging, each enclosing the other, like a Russian doll. At the innermost layer, there’s the package that comes into direct contact with the product. Engineers call this “primary packaging.” This may be a bulk unit, like a jar or a carton, or it may be a product individually packaged for consumers.

Next, in the engineer’s terminology, there’s the “secondary packaging.” Most typically, this is a box or display unit, combining protection for the primary packaging with branding opportunities. Booklets of information about the drug may be slipped into this type of package.

Finally, at the bulk level, there’s tertiary packaging. More often than not, this is a well-wrapped pallet, loaded with multiple boxes, each of which contains multiple individual units of the medication. Some products ship in barrels, crates, and other containers, but for the purposes of this investigation, we’ll pay most attention to pallet loads.

The challenge to manufacturers, warehouse operators, and pharmacy staff is that each of these levels of packaging requires different material handling strategies. You can’t lift a single pill bottle with a forklift; nor would you unback a pallet with a Bin Dumper.

Here are a few material handling solutions for each of these three types of pharmaceutical packaging:

  1. Primary packaging is often quite small, and arrives at the manufacturing facility in broken down, bulk cartons; the plastic pill bottle (or packer bottle) is typical of the type. Manufacturers must move these individual units to the bottling line. Often, bulk material handling equipment is ideal for these units. Heavy duty dumping equipment, such as a Stainless Steel Bin Dumper, cuts down on handling time and reduces the risk of injury among staff.
  2. A common type of secondary packaging in the pharmaceutical industry is the simple cardboard box. Conveyor tables or even automated conveyor lines help to move these units across small spaces. For longer trips, boxes can be packed onto Warehouse Trailers and assembled into a material handling train led by a tugger.
  3. Tertiary packaging at the pallet-load level starts with building the unit. Here, automation options are limited, and many manufacturers continue to build pallet loads manually. Reduce the ergonomic risks associated with pallet work (reaching, bending, stretching, awkward postures) by providing Pallet Carousel & Skid Positioners, which maintain a static work height while also rotating pallets to keep tasks close to the worker’s body. Once the pallet is built, of course, material handling becomes a job for the electric forklift.

At every level of packaging, material handling equipment in the pharmaceutical industry must often meet rigid standards of construction to avoid contaminating the product. Stainless steel, where available, is a popular choice in this industry. As in the food manufacturing business, steel is smooth, nonporous, capable of rounded jointes, and easy to clean. As such, it’s ideal for highly antiseptic environments.

Bin Dumpers, Warehouse Trailers, and many other material handling products from Solus Group are available in stainless steel models. Call 314-696-0200 to learn more about stainless steel material handling equipment for pharmaceutical packaging.


Das, Pratik et. al. “Pharmaceutical Packaging Technology: A Brief Outline.Researchgate. World Journal of Advanced Healthcare Research, 2018. PDF. 1 Aug. 2019.