The digitalisation dilemma in pharmaceutical manufacturing

Drug production may be temporarily resistant to the Industry 4.0 juggernaut, but ignoring the benefits of digital technologies might put your business at risk in the long-term, suggests Alwyn Jones, Head of Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences UK & Ireland, Siemens Digital Industries

Few would argue that quality, speed and consistency are essential for successful pharmaceutical manufacturing. Furthermore, margins can be very slim, competition is strong and the number of genuine, new breakthrough formulations are not only increasingly rare … but harder to commercialise. This would seem to make pharma ripe for digitalisation; yet, many parts of the sector lag behind.

Barriers include potential disruption to what may be perceived as an already efficient manufacturing process, a lack of guaranteed ROI as a result of new investment, a perceived skills deficit within the workforce and the challenge of cybersecurity.

These were some of the key issues that we, and a number of pharma manufacturers, explored recently at Siemens’ Digital Talks conference in Liverpool, UK. The consensus was that although many of these concerns are valid, the massive gains that can be made by embracing digitalisation in pharma processing would appear to outweigh the risks.

It’s therefore puzzling why such levels of resistance remain. One argument is that some vendors sell a long-term vision based on disruptive technologies, mass customisation and lights-out 24/7 production. This fails to recognise short- and medium-term needs and stokes up a fear of the unknown.

Siemens, as manufacturers, understands this — and we work closely with the pharma supply chain to identify when achievable, meaningful and cost-effective gains can be made with minimum intrusion.

Going conti

However, once you have buy-in at that level, you can then start to explore the transformational potential of automation, IIoT analytics and other Industry 4.0 technologies. This includes the Holy Grail of pharma production — a shorter time-to-market. Using Process Analytical Technology (PAT), active ingredients can be produced in highly automated compact and closed units.

Alwyn Jones, Head of Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences UK & Ireland, Siemens Digital Industries

This mean that production steps that were previously done sequentially in a classic batch process are integrated, resulting in the utilisation of assets increasing by 30–40%. Less manual interventions can also result in production costs being cut by up to 20%, and a product that previously took two months to finish can now take two days.

Drilling down further, imagine a continuous tableting line designed to transfer powder into coated tablets in development, pilot, clinical and production volumes using a single manufacturing line. The system can also dose and mix raw materials, perform wet or dry granulation, drying, tableting, coating and quality control, all in one line. This delivers significant reductions in development time and raw material use.

With regards to formulation ingredients being added in the right quantities — and being mixed and processed to obtain the right homogenous product in bulk — this is very labour intensive. But, by combining automation with both PAT and electronic batch recording systems, you can track product quality and process performance more efficiently, streamlining batch review and enabling the real-time release of products. Process and energy costs can also be decreased while maintaining quality and increasing efficiency.

Plant-wide benefits

Looking at the wider pharma production process, we can also see how digitalisation can bring significant gains in other areas. Take raw materials and excipients, for example; these need to be weighed-in with all ingredients prepared for formulation.

Depending on the operator exposure level of the active ingredient, the whole exercise is characterised by manual operations guided by an interactive workflow. With digital interventions, recipe execution and recording can be transformed, reducing errors and driving more operational efficiencies.

In addition, both primary and secondary packaging can be optimised, avoiding out-of-specification products occurring inside the container when the external pack, inserts and labels are all consistently correct. Then we have optimisation of the plant itself.

Having a stable, controlled environment is critical, as is a guaranteed and uninterrupted supply of utilities such as data, water and, of course, power. This is when benefits such as predictive maintenance begin to be realised … with the reduction in downtime being of particular significance.

So, when looking at why pharma’s adoption of digital technologies is not accelerating as fast as expected, it’s worth remembering that batch-size-one isn’t necessarily everyone’s primary goal. But, what pharma companies should be doing, right now, however modestly, is starting the digitalisation process. Otherwise, they will quickly fall behind those already on their way.

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