The role of sensors in ensuring safe pharmaceutical processes

07 April 2024

Claudia Homburg explains the role that level and pressure sensors can play in achieving the many stringent requirements that are placed on pharmaceutical processes.

To ensure that pharmaceutical production facilities are competitive, both today and in the future, process cycles need to be constantly optimised at the same time that costs are being reduced. And, of course, this must be acheived without compromising quality! 

In often fully automated processes flexibility, sterility and reproducibility are decisive factors so the measurement technologies employed play a key role in the  process control equation. It has to have many special features to be able to support the requirements of the process over the entire life cycle of a product. 

One such feature is the ability to meet the highest hygienic standards. Sensors therefore need to be certified according to the current guidelines and norms of the food and pharmaceutical industries and must comply with the many regulations and standards of the sector – including FDA, ISPE GAMP, ASME-BPE and EHEDG. 

The smallest changes
The more flexible the production system, the more support and control is needed from the sensors installed: they need to be capable of integration into the overall system quickly and easily and rule out any possibility of cross-contamination, while ensuring that process cycles are fully traceable. This applies to applications for blockbuster drugs, as well as personalised medicines and single-use applications – from batch production to continuous manufacturing. 

VEGA can provide the entire spectrum of measuring principles need in pharmaceutical production environments. Standardised fittings mean the sensors can be easily and quickly integrated into the system architecture. They are able to detect even the smallest level or pressure changes. The measuring ranges of the pressure transmitters – with a choice of metallic or ceramic measuring cells – begins at just a few millibars, and extends to pressures of up to 1,000 bar. Their performance can directly impact the manufacturing costs of the end product, because accurately 

To help ensure hygienic and sterile drug production processes the sensor materials need to be specially tailored to meet the strict requirements of the industry. The materials need to be able to withstand aggressive cleaning agents and the hygienic design should meet the requirements specified by EHEDG, 3-A Sanitary and FDA. Housings also need to be robust – VEGA sensors are characterised by their flush process fittings and leakproof, robust housings (to IP69K) and their hygienic design is free of gaps and dead spaces and prevents leakage, even during steam jet cleaning.

Specially designed sensors may be required for the critical aspects of clean-in-place (CIP) and sterilise-in-place (SIP) processes. They need to ensure that all the required liquid media pumped through the pipelines of the system during CIP are available with sufficient reserves. And they must reliably withstand the chemicals used – some of which are highly aggressive – even when CIP cleaning is carried out at 150°C for up to two hours, or when the SIP process runs with saturated steam at a pressure of 1 bar. 

Precise and safe 
Sensor applications in pharmaceutical plants can include use in preparation, fermentation and separation, to efficient storage, precise dosing and filling, to periodic cleaning processes during operation – applications are many and diverse. Some concrete examples show how VEGAPULS radar sensors, VEGAPOINT capacitive level switches and VEGABAR pressure switches are qualified to handle these tasks. 

With its versatile hygienic adapters, VEGAPULS 42 radar level sensors are particularly suited to use in processes with strict demands on hygiene and which sees fast level changes. 

IO-Link is an especially important communication protocol for the complex measuring tasks in factory automation, as it allows process data to be networked with both business enterpise and laboratory systems. 

VEGAPULS 42 with IO-Link also attracts users with its maintenance-free operation resulting from contactless 80-GHz radar technology. During the development phase, VEGA dispensed with everything that would make VEGAPULS 42 unnecessarily costly or over-complex. The sensor is designed for measuring distances of up to 15m and can be used at temperatures of up to 150°C. So it can find applications in dosing and downstream processes such as conveyors and filling systems. 

Secure feed and provisioning
In supply lines carrying heating media, a fast response time is essential.  Here VEGABAR 28 can provide reliable pressure monitoring of gases, vapours and liquids up to 130°C. Its ceramic measuring cell offers a number of advantages including chemical and temperature resistance. 

In a solvent tank, the VEGAPULS 6X can help ensure reliable supply. Thanks to the tight focusing of the radar beam, the continuously measuring level sensor measures right past agitators or other tank internals. Its high dynamic range enables measurement even of products with very poor reflective properties – such as oils, solvents or oil-based products. 

Finally, the VEGASWING 61 vibrating level switch can offer a good solution for overflow and dry-run protection, proving particularly useful in storage tanks for cleaning agents. This type of switch technology can be deployed universally for all liquids. Regardless of its mounting position, the instrument detects point levels reliably and with millimetre accuracy. 

Wireless benefits
Finally, wireless communication can now be employed to make it easier to access sensors in clean rooms, harsh industrial environments and Ex areas. Bluetooth, in conjunction with the VEGA Tools app, enables reliable and fast parameterisation, display and diagnosis from a distance of up to 50m without the need for wiring. 

Claudia Homburg is a marketeer at VEGA Grieshaber KG.

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