Operations such as drying and granulation are as old as drugmaking itself. However, until fairly recently, tools were not widely used to control these processes and eliminate variable product quality caused by mechanical or thermal stress, or solvent interaction. In operations such as blending, lack of uniformity and homogeneity can lead to rejected batches. Even worse, when such problems are not detected during quality control, there can be adverse patient reactions.
Since FDA published its Process Analytical Technologies (PAT) guidance document in 2004, a growing number of pharmaceutical manufacturers are using spectroscopic techniques to detect reaction endpoints, and thus, better monitor and control processes such as blending, granulation, drying and coating. These techniques can be used online, allowing deviations to be detected and corrected during manufacturing, without removing samples from the process. They can also be used at-line or off-line.
This article briefly summarizes how techniques including near infrared, FTIR, and mass spectroscopy and focused beam reflectance measurement (FBRM) are being applied to improve the control of pharmaceutical blending, granulation, drying and coating operations.
During manufacturing, solids must interact with equipment and solvents, which may result in thermal or mechanical stress, leading to process-induced transformations (PITs) that lead to variability in the material properties and quality of the final product.
For the past few decades, other industries have recognized that variability in product quality can be addressed by monitoring a process at critical points and using the information gathered during monitoring to actively control the manufacturing process . Focus must be on four main areas: monitoring, supervision, control and diagnosis.
We will now look at each individual technique, staring with near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy.
NIR spectroscopy has become a workhorse technique for both qualitative and quantitative applications [2, 3]. Used widely to characterize raw materials , NIR is becoming accepted for the analysis of intact tablets [5, 6], blend homogeneity , particle size determination  and moisture measurement . Use of NIR can enable continuous and real-time quality assurance, but also reduce product development time, speed scale-up and time-to-market for new products .
NIR in Milling and Blending
In order to work for in-process measurement in nano-milling operations, dealing with particles from the nanometer to hundreds of microns in diameter, in-process tools must be able to determine endpoint in 30% wt/wt solid dispersions, and to achieve precision on the order of nanometers.
In-line NIR spectroscopy has been shown to allow for nanometer-scale particle size determinations in addition to providing the opportunity for real-time control of a critical quality attribute of the complex formulation. The technique has been proven in milling, in which spectra taken from 400-2500 nm using an in-line Foss reflectance probe offered a precise graphical look at endpoint .
NIR has also been used  to visualize chemical content in a blend. By illuminating a specific area in the process vessel with a source containing light in the NIR region and regularly acquiring images, this method used an NIR CCD camera with spectra sensitivity of 900-1700 nm to visualize chemical content. A band-pass optical filter was placed in front of the camera lens and then images were taken using a high-resolution image acquisition board. Principal component analysis (PCA), a multivariate projection tool, was then used to extract blending process information from the data matrix, to provide an overview of dominant patterns and major trends in the data.
Acoustic Analysis for Granulation
In granulation, liquid droplets typically initiate the agglomeration process by creating liquid bridges between particles. Changes to the frequency and intensity of the sound can be expected as the particles become incorporated into granules and the size and number of granules change. Acoustic methods have been used to monitor this process and determine the endpoint. In this case, a microphone was suspended in the filtered air exhaust from the granulator bowl. An additional microphone was mounted to the wall behind the granulator to record any significant background noise in the room. A 16-bit National Instruments DAQCard-6036E was used for data acquisition .
Focused Beam Reflectance Measurement
Focused Beam Reflectance Measurement (FBRM) uses a laser beam focused on the sapphire window of a probe to determine particle size distribution. The beam follows a circular path at speeds of up to 6 m/s. When it intersects with the edge of a particle passing by a window surface, an optical collector records a backscatter signal. The time interval of the signal multiplied by the beam speed represents a chord length between two points on the edge of a particle. The chord length distribution (CLD) can be recalculated to represent either a number or volume weighted particle size distribution .
In many cases, where precision is more important than accuracy, CLD measurements are adequate to monitor dynamic changes in process parameters related to particle size and shape, concentration, and rheology of fluid suspensions.
The in-line real-time particle distributions can be characterized using in situ PAT, FBRM and PVM technology. FBRM and PVM were used to ultimately control the real-time particle distribution during the fluidized bed process. In the bottom spray granulation process, liquid binder and water are continuously sprayed during three stages. Following moisture addition, the bed is dried. Using real-time PAT, one can track the number of fine particles in the range 0-100μm decrease in number over time as the number of coarse particles in the range 200-300μm and 500-600μm grow over time ). The square weighted (volume based) mean eventually reaches a steady state. However, when filter blow back occurs during the third spraying regime, there is an obvious upset of fines seen by the increase in particle counts/second 0-100μm. The particle growth and fines upset were verified by the in-line PVM microscope.