Patent application title: CONTINUOUS FEED TABLET COATING SYSTEM
David O'Hara (Toronto, CA)
James Marjeram (Markham, CA)
O'Hara Technologies Inc.
IPC8 Class: AA23G326FI
Class name: Coating processes particles, flakes, or granules coated or encapsulated
Publication date: 2012-01-19
Patent application number: 20120015101
A system for coating tablets and other small articles is provided. The
system is comprised of an elongate housing containing a drum journalled
for rotation about a horizontal axis. The drum has two open ends that
receive and discharge a supply of tablets respectively. The drum is
rotated about the axis by a drive means to tumble the tablets and advance
the tablets through the drum. The system also includes a system for
delivering a selected amount of coating to the tablets while they are
being tumbled and a feeder for continually feeding tablets at a first end
of the housing. The system employs a weir plate for maintaining a depth
of tablets within the drum and for controlling the time that the tablets
remain in the drum. The system has a tablet discharge region for
receiving tablets for discharge.
1. A system for coating bulk articles comprising: a housing comprising
opposed first and second ends with an axis extending therebetween; a pan
mounted within the interior of the housing for movement relative to the
housing to tumble a bed of said articles within said pan, said pan
comprising a first end for receiving said articles and an opposed second
end for discharging said articles; a coating dispenser for dispensing
coating onto said articles within said pan; a weir plate configured to
partially obstruct the second end of said pan and maintain a selected
spillover height to retain a bed of articles within the pan; and a mount
for mounting the weir plate to the housing to partially obstruct the pan,
wherein the weir plate remains static relative to the housing during
movement of the pan, said mount permitting selective adjustment of the
position of the weir plate to alter the effective spillover height of the
2. The system of claim 1, wherein said pan comprises a central axis between said first and second ends and said weir plate mount provides rotational movement of the weir plate about said axis to permit said adjustment of position.
3. The system of claim 1, wherein said pan comprises a rotatable drum having opposed open ends, said weir plate comprising an arcuate lower edge conforming to the interior surface of said drum.
4. The system of claim 3, wherein said weir plate is rotatably mounted to the housing for adjustment about an axis of rotation co-axial with the axis of rotation of said drum.
5. The system of claim 4, wherein said housing comprises opposing first and second end walls at the respective ends thereof, and said weir plate mount comprises a rotatable shaft journalled to the second end wall and a radially-extending link arm connecting the weir plate to the rotatable shaft wherein rotation of the rotatable shaft adjusts the rotational position of the weir plate about an axis of rotation defined by the rotatable shaft.
6. The system of claim 5, wherein said second end wall comprises a port with a door covering said port for accessing the interior of said drum, said shaft being mounted to said door, wherein opening of the door pivots the weir plate outwardly from the housing.
7. The system of claim 1 further comprising a feeder for dispensing a stream of bulk articles into a first end of the pan.
8. The system of claim 7 further comprising an actuator for adjusting the position of the weir plate and a controller in operative communication with said feeder and said actuator configured to control the average dwell time of tablets within said system by controlling the rate of introduction of said tablets into said system and the spillover height of said weir plate.
9. A system for coating bulk articles comprising: a housing having opposed first and second ends; a rotatable drum within said housing, said drum having a central axis, a first end for receiving said articles and an opposed second end for discharging said articles; a coating dispenser for dispensing coating onto a bed of said articles within said pan; a drive for rotating said drum relative to said housing to tumble said articles within said drum; a weir plate configured to partially obstruct the second end of said drum and provide a selected spillover height to maintain a selected depth of the bed of articles within the drum; and a weir plate mount for mounting the weir plate to the housing to partially obstruct the drum, wherein the weir plate remains static relative to the housing during rotation of the drum, said mount permitting adjustment of the rotational position of the weir plate about an axis of rotation co-axial with the central axis of the drum to alter the effective spillover height of the weir plate.
10. The system of claim 9 further comprising a feeder for dispensing articles in bulk into said first end of said drum.
11. The system of claim 9, wherein said housing comprises opposing first and second end walls at the respective ends thereof, and said weir plate mount comprises a rotatable shaft journalled to the second end wall, and a radially-extending link arm connecting the weir plate to the rotatable shaft wherein rotation of the shaft adjusts the rotational position of the weir plate about an axis of rotation defined by the rotatable shaft.
12. The system of claim 11, wherein said second end wall comprises a port with a door covering said port located for accessing the interior of said drum, said rotatable shaft being mounted to said door, wherein opening of the door pivots the weir plate outwardly from the housing.
13. The system of claim 9 further comprising an actuator for adjusting the position of the weir plate and a controller in operative communication with said feeder and said actuator configured to control the average dwell time of tablets within said system by controlling the rate of introduction of said tablets into said system and the spillover height of said weir plate.
14. A continuous coating method for bulk articles comprising the steps of providing a system comprising a moveable pan comprising opposed first and second ends, a coating dispenser configured to dispense coating onto a bed of articles within said pan, and a weir plate at the second end of said pan; introducing articles into said first end to form a continuous bed of said articles within said pan; dispensing coating on said articles; providing a selected bed depth within the pan by maintaining a selected spillover height of said weir plate relative to the pan; determining the weight gain of said articles indicative of the amount of coating thereon; and controlling the average dwell time of articles within said pan to obtain a selected coating dispensing exposure time and weight gain of said articles by controlling the spillover height of the weir plate relative to the pan, wherein said weir plate remains static relative to the housing as the pan is moved.
15. The method of claim 14, wherein said pan comprises a rotatable drum, said method comprising the steps of tumbling said articles within said drum by rotation of the drum, and controlling the spillover height of said weir plate by selectively adjusting the rotational position of the weir about the elongate axis of the drum.
16. The method of claim 14 comprising the step of further controlling the rate of transit of said articles through the drum by controlling the rate of introducing articles into said drum.
17. The method of claim 14, wherein said system is configured to dispense said coating in either of a selected batch or continuous coating mode, said method comprising the step of coating an initial charge of articles in a batch mode, and subsequently transitioning to a continuous coating mode by introducing a continuous stream of articles into said pan, and adjusting the position of the weir to permit continuous throughflow of said articles through the pan.
CROSS REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
 This application is a Continuation of application Ser. No. 11/911,498, filed on Oct. 12, 2007, the entire contents of which are incorporated herein by reference. U.S. application Ser. No. 11/911,498 is the National Stage entry of PCT/CA2006/000552, filed internationally on Apr. 12, 2006, the disclosure of which is hereby incorporated by reference in its entirety. PCT International Application No. PCT/CA2006/000552 claims priority to and the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 60/670,271, filed of Apr. 12, 2005, the entire contents of which are hereby incorporated by reference.
FIELD OF THE INVENTION
 The invention relates to processes and equipment for applying a coating in a bulk process onto articles such as pharmaceutical tablets or other dosage forms, food articles, seeds and other relatively small robust articles that can be processed in bulk. More specifically, the invention relates to systems which apply a spray-on coating onto a bed of articles within a horizontal axis tumbler or pan.
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
 Coatings for articles such as tablets for human or animal consumption (or other uses) may be applied in bulk with a system consisting of a moveable pan, such as a rotating horizontal-axis drum for tumbling the tablets while a coating substance is sprayed on the tablet bed within the drum. Movement of the pan causes the bed of articles to tumble, churn or be otherwise displaced to fully expose the articles to an overhead sprayer. Typically, the pan is perforated to permit a flow of heated air through the pan wall to facilitate drying and to permit cleaning fluid to drain. Such perforations may take on a variety of shapes and sizes suitable to the desired application. Coating systems of this type can be are used in a variety of other applications for applying a coating to small articles capable of bulk processing, for example a range of pharmaceutical dosage forms, candies and other food articles, seeds, and other articles that can be subjected to the tumbling or similar action of a coating system. As noted below, the terms "tablets" and "articles" are used broadly herein to refer to any such articles that are suitable for use in a coating system of this type.
 Tablets and other small coated articles are typically produced in a wide range of shapes, sizes and densities. Accordingly, any system for coating tablets or the like should be capable of efficiently coating a wide variety of articles. A typical coating system includes a housing, an overhead sprayer for dispensing coating, a horizontal-axis pan for retaining the articles during the coating stage, such as a perforated drum journaled for rotation within the housing, and drive means to impart motion to the pan to redistribute, tumble, or otherwise place the articles in motion within the pan so as to fully expose the article surfaces to the overhead sprayer. The system includes a drive, such as a drive for rotating the drum comprising a variable speed motor connected to the drum, for example by a belt or chain drive. The system further includes means for introducing uncoated articles into the pan and for removing the coated articles following the coating process.
 For pharmaceutical applications, such as coating tablets or other dosage forms, a high level of precision in the coating process is required in order to maintain a controlled thickness and weight of coating. Preferably, the system includes a means for introducing a flow of air through the pan wall, for example heated air to facilitate the drying process. Finally, the system should permit thorough washing of components which are in contact with the tablets and spray liquid. Washing of the equipment may be provided by means of fully or semi-automatic systems or a fully-manual approach.
 Coating systems are described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,725,446 to Forster et al., which describes a rotateable horizontal axis drum having a perforated wall. A supply of drying air flows through the drum wall. Coating solution is sprayed onto the tumbling tablets via a sprayer centrally positioned within the drum directed generally downwardly towards the tumbling bed of pills within the drum interior.
 Certain prior art systems provide for batch processing of tablets, which is relatively inefficient in comparison with a continuous coating process. However, batch processing generally requires simpler equipment, particularly in the pharmaceutical processing context in which a high level of precision is required in supplying a selected amount of coating for a given batch size of tablets as well as tablet dwell time within the drum. Thus, it is relatively simple to introduce a carefully measured batch size of tablets into the drum and thereupon apply a measured amount of coating to the tablets. Continuous processing, while more efficient, has in the past encountered difficulties in terms of consistency of the coating process.
 Another aspect of coating systems, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, relates to rinsing and washing of coating equipment, particularly those components which come into contact with pharmaceutical product. A high standard of cleanliness applies to the equipment, in particular when the machine is switched for coating of one product to another. It is desirable to provide a convenient system for spraying a cleaning solution throughout the drum interior, with minimal worker contact with the equipment. Cleaning of the spray assembly in a drum-type continuous coater can be particularly difficult in that the spray assembly is housed within the drum interior, where access is difficult. It is desirable to provide a convenient means to retract the spray assembly from the drum for cleaning, maintenance and other purposes.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
 An object of the invention is to provide a system for coating tablets and other small articles such as food articles, seeds and other relatively small articles that are sufficiently robust to withstand bulk processing steps such as tumbling, gravity feed, and the like. For purposes of the present specification, such small articles are usually referred to herein as "tablets" or "articles". The present system is operable in a continuous processing operation wherein tablets may be introduced and discharged on a continuous basis. A further object is to provide a system which optionally is operable in both batch and continuous modes and able to switch seamlessly or with only minimal interruption from one to the other mode. For example, upon system startup the system may be operate in a batch mode, and then shifted into continuous operation in order to minimize waste of coating fluid. A further object is to provide an improved tablet coating system having a horizontal-axis drum as the pan for retaining the tablets or other articles, including improved means for washing the tablet-coating drum and other components in contact with the tablets.
 In one aspect the invention includes a tablet coating system including:
a) a housing comprising opposed first and second ends with an axis extending therebetween; b) a pan mounted within the interior of the housing for movement relative to the housing to tumble a bed of said articles within said pan, said pan comprising a first end for receiving said articles and an opposed second end for discharging said articles; c) a coating dispenser for dispensing coating onto said articles within said pan; d) a weir plate configured to partially obstruct the second end of said pan and provide a selected spillover height to maintain a selected depth of the bed of articles within the pan; and e) a mount for mounting the weir plate to the housing to partially obstruct the pan, wherein the weir plate remains static relative to the housing during movement of the pan, said mount permitting selective adjustment of the position of the weir plate to alter the effective spillover height of the weir plate.
 The pan may comprise a drum journalled for rotation about a horizontal axis extending between the housing ends, having a first end for receiving tablets and an open second end for discharging tablets, such that tablets received in the first end of the drum are tumbled within the drum as the drum rotates while being coated and optionally at least partially dried, and discharged from the opposed end. The tablets are transited along the drum by the rotary action of the drum as additional tablets are introduced into the first end and discharged from the second end.
 The tablets may be fed onto the pan with a feeder such as a weigh-in feeder for dispensing a stream of bulk tablets on a continuous basis into the first end of said housing. The tablets may be dispensed at a selected rate, for example, by weight/time.
 The weir plate may be mounted to an end wall or door of the housing such that its rotational position may be adjusted about a circular path, the axis of which is co-axial with the elongate axis of the pan or drum, in which the path corresponds with the pan or drum wall. Repositioning of the weir plate by rotating it about the elongate axis of the drum thus effectively changes its angular position relative to the pan, thereby changing the effective spillover height provided by the weir plate. The weir plate remains static as the drum rotates except when its rotational position is adjusted to change the effective spillover height.
 In one aspect, a controller is operatively connected to the weigh-in feeder and optionally the weir plate mount and drive means for the pan to control operation of the system.
 As the rotational position of the weir plate is adjusted, the tablet bed depth is increased or decreased within the drum, thereby increasing or decreasing the average dwell time of tablets within the bed. Since the weir plate remains static as the drum is rotated, the rotational position thereof defines its effective spillover height relative to the lowermost portion of the drum.
 The feeder may comprise a scale for weighing a stream of tablets passing over said scale, with a conveyor belt or other tablet transport system to carry tablets in bulk across said scale while being weighed, and a controller/CPU which monitors total tablet weight (or other unit of measurement) on a real time basis as tablets are conveyed into the system. The controller is operatively connected to said scale and feeder to monitor and control operation of the system.
 The system may be operated to process tablets in either of a batch or continuous processing operation. Preferably the system is controlled to operate with an initial batch process upon startup, which then can be configured with no or minimal interruption for operation in a continuous processing mode.
 According to one aspect, the weir plate is generally crescent or scimitar shaped, with an upper concave edge and a substantially semi-circular lower edge which corresponds with the inside surface of the pan. A scimitar shape provides that the upper edge of the weir plate is asymmetric and comprises a generally flat first region merging with a curved (hyperbolic) second region. The weir plate is rotatably mounted so as to selectively vary the obstruction of said drum so as to increase or decrease the depth of tablets within said drum, and operatively connected to the controller so as to control positioning of the weir plate. The weir plate may be mounted to an end wall or door of the housing via a horizontal shaft coaxial with the drum axis. A link extending radially from the shaft connects the shaft to the weir plate, such that rotation of the shaft causes the weir plate to travel in an arcuate path aligned with the drum wall.
 According to another aspect, the invention relates to a coating dispenser for dispensing coating from a source onto a bed of coatable articles within a pan. The dispenser comprises an extendible member and a pair of opposing spray assemblies in end to end linear relation overhead of said pan. Each of said assemblies comprises an elongate nozzle support, an array of spray nozzles mounted to the nozzle support for connection with a source of pressurized coating fluid and optionally with a source of compressed air, and an arm at an end of said nozzle support for mounting the nozzle support to the extendible member. The extendible member is extendible in length to permit retraction of at least one of said spray assemblies away from said pan independently of the other of said spray assemblies.
 The extendible member may comprises two extendible segments, which may be telescoping, to extend both respective ends thereof outwardly in opposing directions for retracting both of said assemblies away from the pan in opposing directions from each other. A mounting bracket may be provided to mount the extendible member to the system housing. The bracket extends from the extendible member intermediate the ends thereof, with the extendible segments being located on opposing ends of said bracket for extending the respective ends of the extendible member on opposing sides of the bracket.
 The arms that support the sprayer assemblies may be vertically oriented and extendible in length to vary the elevation of the assemblies above the pan. The assemblies may be rotatably mounted to respective ones of said arms for rotation about the elongate axes thereof.
 In the above coating dispenser, the pan may comprise a drum, with the spray assemblies being configured for positioning within the interior of said drum coaxially with the elongate axis of the drum to dispense said fluid on a bed of articles located in the base of said drum. The extendible member is external to said drum with the respective arms being located at opposing ends of said drum.
 According to another aspect, the housing includes a lower portion which is substantially sealed to permit cleaning liquid to accumulate within the base of the housing, thereby effectively forming a sealed sump or pan for retaining cleaning liquid during the cleaning phase. A closable drain enters the housing, to permit cleaning liquid to drain from the housing when opened. The drum is positioned such that a lower portion of the drum extends into the lowermost sealed portion of the housing, such that cleaning liquid which accumulates within the lower base region of the housing may be in contact with the drum, in order to permit a thorough cleaning of the drum. The cleaning liquid is dispensed through nozzles on the spray assemblies described above, which can be activated during a cleaning cycle.
 Heated air may be delivered into the housing, preferably via an array of independently controlled plenums which form effective zones within the housing with independently controlled temperature and airflow levels. Discharge ducts permit the air to exit the housing.
 The invention also relates to a method of applying a coating to tablets in bulk comprising the steps of providing a system as defined above, feeding a supply of uncoated tablets and a supply of coating liquid into said system, removing said tablets from said system on a continuous basis, and controlling said system for continuous deliver, coating and removal of tablets at a selected rate comprising a selected weight of bulk tablets per selected unit of time. Average dwell time for the tablets within the drum is controlled by rotating the weir plate so as to control the obstruction of the open second end of the drum so as to effectively increase or decrease the depth of the tablet bed within the drum. The dwell time is a function of the drum speed and other factors, and may be selected in accordance with the desired coating process parameters.
 The method further comprises a start-up protocol wherein tablets are dispensed into the pan on an initial batch basis. As the tablets are initially dispensed, the spray zones are sequentially activated to deliver coating fluid, commencing with the zone adjacent the first end of the drum and sequentially moving towards the second end in correspondence with the passage of the initial tablet batch along the drum. Following the initial batch process, the system may be then operated in a continuous processing mode. The method comprises a shut-down protocol which is essentially the reverse of the start-up protocol.
 The term "tablets" as used in this patent specification is not intended to be restricted to any particular type, size, shape or form of articles that may be processed in the system described and claimed herein. Rather, the term "tablets" is used to refer to any small article suitable for coating within a tumbling apparatus, including for example pills, lozenges, caplets and other sizes and shapes of similar articles, as well as candies or other food articles, seeds and any other small article that receives a coating and which can be processed in a bulk processing system in which the articles are tumbled and otherwise processed in bulk.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
 FIG. 1 is a side elevational view of a tablet coating system according to an embodiment of the present invention.
 FIG. 2 is a rear elevational view thereof.
 FIG. 3 is a front elevational view thereof.
 FIG. 4 is a perspective view of the tablet discharge region of an embodiment of the system.
 FIG. 5 is a plan view from above of the discharge portion.
 FIG. 6 is a front elevational view of the discharge portion with the door in the open position.
 FIG. 7 is a perspective view of the drum support frame of the system with associated components.
 FIG. 8 is front view of the system with the drum removed to show internal components.
 FIG. 9 is a rear elevational view showing internal components of an embodiment of the system.
 FIG. 10 is a side elevational view of an embodiment of the coating sprayer assembly.
 FIG. 11 is a perspective view of the tablet discharge region of an embodiment of the system.
 FIG. 12 is a side elevational view of the discharge region with the door open.
 FIGS. 13A and 13 B depict a flow chart showing operation of an embodiment of the present system.
 The tablet coating system 10 described herein as one embodiment of the invention comprises in general terms a weigh in-feed conveyor 12, a housing 14, a tablet inlet chamber 16 and a coated tablet discharge region 18 for discharging coated tablets from the system. The housing 14 is supported by a frame 19, including length-adjustable legs 20 for leveling the system. Housing 14 fully encloses a horizontal-axis perforated rotatable stainless steel drum 22, seen in detail in FIG. 7. Drum 22 is open-ended at both opposed ends. Access to the interior of housing 14 is obtained by an array of doors 15 on both lateral sides of the housing. As well, front and rear ports within the end walls, covered by front and rear end doors 40 and 72 provide access from the respective ends of housing 14. All doors of the housing are sealed with inflatable seals. Housing 14 is generally elongate, with a central axis extending between the opposed ends thereof.
 In-feed conveyor 12 comprises a commercially-available unit, such as that manufactured by Siemens AG®. Conveyor 12 comprises an inlet 28 to receive uncoated tablets, discharging onto a motor-driven conveyor belt 30, which in turn discharges into a hopper 32 for entry into inlet 16 through inlet conduit 33. Belt 30 passes across and bears on a scale 34 to detect the weight of the tablets deposited onto the conveyor on a continuous basis. This weight amount is calculated by subtracting the weight of the conveyor and associated components from the total weight detected by the scale. As discussed below, a system controller 36 extracts from this tablet weight information the rate of tablet in-feed into the system, in selected weight/time units.
 In-feed conveyor 12 includes a controlled-flow dispenser to dispense tablets at a selected rate of supply onto belt 30 in response to a control signal from system controller 36. The feedback signal from scale 34 permits a supply of tablets at a constant rate in units of weight per unit of time (for example a selected kg/min. rate of tablet supply).
 As seen in FIG. 3, tablets received in inlet hopper 32 enter via gravity through conduit 33 into tablet inlet chamber 16, which constitutes a port into the interior of housing 14. Inlet chamber 16 comprises an annular flange 17 (see FIG. 1) which protrudes outwardly from a first end of housing 14. Inlet 16 communicates with the interior of housing 14. The proximal end of inlet chamber 16 comprises an openable door 40, which opens for access into the interior of housing 14. Conduit 33 communicates with entryway 16 through an opening within flange 17. Inlet 16 comprises a chamber aligned with drum 22 within the interior of the housing 14, such that tablets entering chamber 16 are directed into the interior of drum 22. Inlet 16 is partly obstructed by a plate 79 to retain a tablet bed within the drum interior.
 As seen in FIG. 7, drum 22 is housed within a cage comprising a plurality of spaced-apart hoops supported by a frame. The hoops include a central hoop 25 and first and second end hoops 27(a) and 27(b), all three of which have an outer contact surface 29 for contacting an array of drive and driven wheels 42. Central hoop 25 also includes raised flanges 31 on either side thereof. The flange have side edges for contact with a pair of horizontally-oriented opposed centering wheels 35 to maintain the fore-aft position of the drum. The frame is further comprised of an array of stave-like rods 110 fastened to hoops 25 and 27. Drive wheels 42(a) are mounted to a rotatable shaft 44 extending lengthwise within housing 14. Shaft 44 is journaled for rotation within a bearing hub 46 mounted within a corresponding end wall of the housing. A first hub 46 supporting the drive axle includes a drive shaft 48 extending outwardly from an end wall of the housing. A pulley 50 is mounted to the drive shaft 48, which in turn is driven by an electric motor 52 mounted to frame 18. The motor is controlled by the control system, described below. The driven wheels 42(b) are mounted to corresponding mounts within the interior of the housing 12.
 In one embodiment, constituting a representative example, drum 22 is about 30 inches in diameter and comprises a perforated stainless steel wall. In one version, the overall length of housing 14, including inlet and outlet chambers, is 206 inches, with the housing interior length being about 187 inches. Drum 22 extends substantially the full length of the housing interior.
 As seen schematically in FIG. 9, within the interior of the housing 14 and extending axially the length thereof is a stainless steel baffle 60 which effectively divides the interior space within the housing 14 exterior to drum 22, in order to channel the flow of heated air through drum 22 and thus through the tablet bed. Baffle 60 is fastened to the floor of housing 14 and projects upwardly with its upper edge contacting or approaching drum 22. The housing interior is thus effectively divided between air inflow and air outflow zones located on opposed lateral sides within housing 14, with each zone extending the full length of housing 14.
 Heated air is introduced into the air inflow zone via an array of overhead intake plenums 66, which receive heated air from a common source, which is not shown. Operating temperatures are controlled to within about +/-1 degree C. by way of tandem packaged boilers, not shown, with turndown rations of 10:1 operatively connected to intake plenums 66. The interior of housing 14 effectively comprises four zones along the length of drum 22, with the supply of heated air being effectively independently delivered within each zone. Independently controlled iris valves, not shown, within plenums 66 allow for independent delivery of hot air into the housing to permit balancing and tuning of the hot air supply within the effective zones within the housing. Thus, within each zone the rate and temperature of heated air delivered into the drum may be independently controlled.
 Baffle 60 channels the heated air to flow through drum 22, exiting the housing via an array of exit ducts 68, which channel the exhaust air via a common manifold for discharge either into the exterior environment or through a treatment system, not shown. Baffle 60 is positioned so as to direct the stream of heated air through the tablet bed within drum 22, such that all or most of the air flows through the bed of tablets. During rotation of drum 22, the tablet bed will be tilted in the direction of rotation of drum 22; in order to accommodate such tilt, the baffles are positioned accordingly. For example, if the drum rotates clockwise, when viewed from a first end, the tablet bed will be tilted such that the exposed surface of the tablet bed tilts upwardly and to the left, as seen in FIG. 9. The speed of drum rotation as well as tablet depth will determine the tilt of the tablet bed.
 Tablets within drum 22 exit via tablet discharge opening 18. Opening 18 comprises a cylindrical opening within the end wall of the housing, surrounded by a tubular flange 70 aligned with drum 22. The flange opening is fully covered by a rear door panel 72, comprising a circular panel hinged to the flange 70. An inflatable seal 74 provides a waterproof and airtight seal when the door is closed. Panel 72 includes a window 76 for viewing the drum interior.
 A weir plate 80 is provided at the second end of drum 22 for retaining within the drum a selected depth of tablets while permitting the discharge of tablets which exceed this depth. Weir plate 80 partially obstructs the discharge end of drum 22 and forces the tablets to spill over the top thereof in order to exit the drum. This maintains a bed of a selected depth within drum 22. As will be discussed below, the effective spill-over height of weir plate 80 can be adjusted by adjusting its rotational position about the axis of drum 22. As will be discussed below, adjustment of the rate of inflow of tablets dispensed by the in-feed conveyor, with adjustment of the effective spillover height of weir plate 80, permits a continuous coating operation of the system. As seen in FIG. 1, the shape of weir plate 80 departs somewhat from a crescent shape, in that the plate comprises an arcuate lower edge that conforms to the circular cross-sectional shape of drum 22, and an upper edge having a straight region 82 merging with a hyperbolic curved region 84. The overall shape thus is similar in appearance to a scimitar blade. The upper edge of weir plate 80 thus generally corresponds with the shape assumed by the upper surface of a tablet bed as the drum is rotated in a clockwise direction when viewed from the first end of the housing.
 Weir plate 80 is mounted to housing 14 in a fashion which permits it to remain static while drum 22 rotates. For this purpose, weir plate 80 is positioned such that its lower edge is within or immediately adjacent to the interior surface of drum 22, thereby obstructing the lower portion of drum 22 to prevent articles from escaping from between drum 22 and weir plate 80, such that all articles must spill over the upper edge of weir plate 80. Weir plate 80 is mounted such that its rotational position can be adjusted by a selected amount. This function permits weir plate 80 to partially obstruct the outlet of drum 22 in an adjustable fashion, such that tablets must spill over the upper edge of weir plate 80 for discharge from drum 22. Adjustment of the rotational position of weir plate 80 effectively changes its spillover height, thereby changing the bed depth within the interior of drum 22. Although weir plate 80 can be mounted to housing 14 in a variety of mounting configurations, in the described embodiment it is mounted to project from the inside face of door panel 72. This permits weir plate 80 to pivot outwardly from housing 14 when door 72 is opened, for inspection, cleaning etc. The space defined between door panel 72 and weir plate 80 provides a discharge region for tablets spilling over the weir plate.
 As seen in FIGS. 4 to 6, 11 and 12, weir plate 80 is mounted to door panel 72 by an offset mount comprising a horizontal shaft 86 which is fixedly mounted to weir plate 80, for example by bolts 88. Shaft 86 is co-axial with the central axis of drum 22. Shaft 86 in turn is mounted at its opposed end to a first end of a radially-extending linkage arm 90. The opposed second end of the linkage arm 90 is fixedly mounted to a horizontal rotateable shaft 92, which is offset from and parallel to shaft 86. Rotation of shaft 92 about its central axis has the effect of swinging weir plate 80 about an arc, whose radius is defined by the length of arm 90 and whose axis is the central axis of shaft 90. The positioning and shape of the weir plate 80 and the associated mounting shafts and arm are arranged such that the lower edge of the weir plate describes a circular movement corresponding with the drum wall, when rotated.
 Shaft 92 extends through door panel 72, and is rotatably journaled within a bearing mount 73 extending through door 72. Shaft 92 is rotatably driven by a drive means which may comprise any suitable means to precisely impart rotational positioning, such as an electro-pneumatic positioner 94, operatively connected to shaft 92 via linkages 95, 96. If motor driven, control of the motor is effected by the central control system, described below.
 Tablets spilling over the top edge of the weir plate 80 exit via a discharge hopper 98 which opens into the space between weir plate 80 and door panel 72. The coated tablets exit the system through hopper 98 and are then handled in a conventional manner.
 Weir plate 80 can be rotatably adjusted to essentially any desired rotational position about the elongate axis of drum 22, within a range from a fully obstructing position wherein its effective spillover height is at a maximum, and a full non-obstructing position wherein it does not block the exit of tablets from drum 22. In the maximally obstructing position, weir plate 80 is positioned such that a relatively larger portion of the plate is located above the base of the drum, in the direction of drum rotation. The shape of the upper edge of weir plate 80 is configured such that it generally matches the contours of the tablet bed as drum 22 rotates. Weir plate 80 thus can be precisely located to provide a spillover surface which is matched in its orientation to the surface of the tablet bed, which in turn is tilted by an amount that depends on the drum rotational speed. The effective height of the spillover surface of weir plate 80 is determined by its angular position, and adjusting this position has the effect of altering the tablet bed depth. This in turn affects the average dwell time for tablets within the drum. As will be seen, tablets deposited in a first end of the drum will move towards the discharge end upon rotation of the drum, with the continuous addition of tablets at one end and discharge at the other end. Hence, the speed of drum rotation, rate of tablet introduction and rotational position of weir plate 80 cooperate to establish an average dwell time.
 As well, when weir plate 80 is adjusted into the appropriate rotational position for maximal bed depth, the system can then operate as a batch processor if desired, for example at the start of a production run. The weir plate 80 may then be rotated into an intermediate position for continued processing on a continuous basis.
 A controlled supply of a coating substance such as a coating liquid is dispensed onto the tablet bed via a spray assembly 100, shown in detail in FIG. 10. Assembly 100 extends within the interior of the drum parallel to the elongate axis thereof and comprises two independently rotatable sub-assemblies 102a and 102b supported by an overhead support 152 exterior to the housing. Sub-assemblies 102a and b are positioned in end-to end coaxial relationship, with their respective distal ends abutting. Together, assemblies 102a and b extend substantially the full length of drum 22. Each sub-assembly 102a and 102b comprises a nozzle support, consisting of two parallel pipes consisting of an upper pipe 130 and a lower pipe 132, which communicate with each other internally via conduits 103. Pipes 130 and 132 are configured such that lower pipe 132 is located within the interior of drum 22 during the normal operation of the system, and upper pipe 130 is exterior of drum 22. Effectively, the respective pipes and conduit 130, 132 and 103 form a C-shaped structure whose lower member inserts within the interior of drum 22 for dispensing spray and the upper member provides structural support and serves as a manifold for the spray fluid.
 Each of assemblies 102a and 102b are independently mounted at their proximal ends to respective shafts 134, which are in turn each rotatably journalled within bearing mounts 150 at respective ends of housing 14. Shafts 134 are operatively connected to an external drive, not shown, for rotation about the elongate axis thereof. Pipe 130 supports an array of spray nozzles comprising Schlick® spray guns 106 to spray coating in atomized form onto the tablets. It will be understood that other types of spray guns may be used as is appropriate. The source and makeup of the pressurized coating fluid will consist of any suitable coating fluid, depending on the needs of coating operation and the operating parameters imposed by nozzles 106 and other components of the system. Pipes 130 are each independently fed coating liquid from a pressurized source thereof by flexible supply lines, not shown. Pressurized air is delivered from a source thereof to spray guns 106 via hoses, not shown, connected through air fittings 140. Assemblies 102a and b include inlets for the pressurized coating fluid and compressed air.
 Bearing mounts 150 are each mounted to support 152, comprising a horizontal arm 154 extending the length of housing 14. Arm 154 comprises telescoping sections 156 at either end thereof and telescoping vertical aims 158 at either end thereof to which the bearing mounts are engaged. Extension of sections 156 permits the respective assemblies 102a and b to be independently retracted horizontally outwardly from housing 14, away from drum 22, for cleaning, maintenance or the like. Horizontal arm 154 is mounted externally of housing 14, with vertical arms 158 overhanging the ends of the housing and entering the respective chambers 16 and 18. Vertical arms 158 fit within grooves 160 within flanges 16 and 18. Each of the bearing mounts 150 is operatively connected to a drive, for independently rotating the assemblies 102a and 102b. Assemblies 102a and 102b are separable from each other and may be retracted away from each other by expanding sections 156. In order to retract assemblies 102a and b, the system is shut down and the respective end doors 40 and 72 are opened. One or both of assemblies 102a and 102b are then retracted, such that the corresponding telescoping sections 156 are extended. Sections 156 provide sufficient extension to permit the respective assemblies to be essentially fully retracted from housing 14 for cleaning or maintenance. The supply line includes sufficient slack to permit such movement of the assemblies 102a and 102b. Support 152 includes a pair of hangers 142 to support cable loops in a convenient fashion.
 As seen in FIG. 10, assemblies 102a and b are releasably coupled together by coupler 141, which transmits rotational force from one assembly to the other when the assemblies are in contact with each other.
 Assemblies 102a and b can be rotated through 360 degrees, with an operative range of rotation being about 90 degrees to permit positioning of the spray guns 106, described below, such that they are perpendicular to the surface of the tablet bed. Further, telescoping vertical arms 158 can vary the vertical position of the spray assembly 102 within a range of about 90-100 millimeters so as to vary the distance between the spray guns 106 and the tablet bed so as to vary the spray pattern striking the tablet bed.
 Nozzles 106 are arranged spatially to provide independently-controlled spray zones along the length of the drum 22, directed generally downwardly towards the position of the tablet bed within the drum.
 Spray guns 106 are arranged on each of assemblies 102a and b in three arrays of three guns each, for a total of 18 guns in six independently controlled spray zones. Each array of guns 106 within a given zone is independently controlled. The independently controlled spray zones permit a controlled build-up of the sprayed coating to permit accurate coating weight gain, particularly in the transition time between the initial batch processing and the subsequent continuous mode operation. In particular, the system reduces losses incurred through undercoating or off-spec coating while in the batch production mode.
 A wash-in-place system is provided for cleaning of the interior of the housing 14 and the drum 22. The system comprises a pair of conduits 120a and 120b for wash liquid (such as water) supported by the assemblies 102a and 102b respectively. Conduits 120 each receive a pressurized supply of liquid from a flexible hose, not shown. Cleaning liquid is dispensed under pressure via two nozzles 164a and b which are operatively connected to conduits 120a and 120b respectively. Nozzles 164 are each capable of 360 degree rotation to deliver cleaning liquid towards the interior drum wall with full 360 degree coverage.
 During the wash cycle, wash liquid collects within the base of housing 14, filling the housing about 1/4 to 1/3 of its height with solution to form an internal sump region. The components of the system are designed to maintain the primary drive components above the sump region while permitting immersion of the sump region. In practice, sufficient liquid will be introduced such that a portion of the drum will enter the collected wash liquid and during drum rotation is thus effectively washed. Nozzles 164 also direct a liquid spray towards the end walls, so as to effectively wash the interior of the housing. The first and second doors are sealed against leakage of liquid, by means of a highly watertight seal formed by an inflatable gasket, fixedly mounted around the perimeter of the respective doors. Each door is also provided with a latch to tightly close the door.
 Liquid used for cleaning of the system which collects within the base of the housing may be drained, via one or more drains for either disposal or re-use.
 Operation of the system 10, including tablet in-feed rate, drum rotation, coating spray delivery, heated air delivery, weir plate position and the wash-in-place cleaning system, is controlled via central controller 36, which is operatively linked to tablet inlet 28, in-feed conveyor 26, drum drive motor 52, weir plate positioner 94, and coating spray and liquid dispensing systems. Controller 36 comprises any suitable electronic system capable of receiving electronic signals from the various sensors incorporated in the system, processing the signals according to a logic sequence as described herein, and transmitting control signals. The controller 36 includes a user interface to permit programming of the system operation.
 FIG. 13 comprises flow charts depicting one mode of controlling and operating the present system. Controller 36 is configured to operate the system initially in a start up mode, wherein the system is readied for operation, as seen in the "operating sequence--preparation" flow chart. The system is then operated in an operational mode, as seen in the flowchart entitled "Operating Sequence--Coating". In this sequence, tablets are introduced into the rotating drum in an initial batch basis to fully charge the drum with tablets. At this stage, weir plate 80 is in its fully obstructing position and the system is operated in a "batch processing" mode to fully coat the tablets within the initial charge of tablets. System operation is then shifted into a continuous processing mode. For this purpose, the weir is then adjusted to a height selected to permit spillover, and tablets are introduced on a continuous basis at the intake end of the drum. The spray zones are sequentially activated, commencing at the first zone adjacent the intake end. Sequential activation permits transitioning of the system from the batch mode to a continuous mode. Shut-down of the system comprises positioning the weir plate in the closed (fully obstructing) position, and the spray zones are activated sequentially in a manner similar to the start up sequence, so as to fully coat all tablets present in the drum by an equal amount. The weir plate is then fully opened, with the drum activated to fully discharge the coated tablets.
 In an alternative embodiment, some or all of the steps described and illustrated herein can be controlled by manual operation in place of the automatic operation by the controller.
 The controller is programmed with conventional programming language and means to operate the system according to the steps and flow chart shown above. Persons skilled in the relevant art will appreciate the diverse means available to program the controller to operate according the logic described herein. The controller programming may comprise either a programmable software or may be embedded within the structure of a chip.
 Although the present invention has been described in part by reference to one or more embodiments described in detail, it will be understood that the invention is not limited in its scope to these embodiments nor to any particular aspect of same. Rather, the full scope of the invention is described by reference to this patent specification as a whole including the claims.
Patent applications in class PARTICLES, FLAKES, OR GRANULES COATED OR ENCAPSULATED
Patent applications in all subclasses PARTICLES, FLAKES, OR GRANULES COATED OR ENCAPSULATED