Flexible, Scalable Automation is Vital to the Pharmaceutical Industry

Robotics systems have been a part of the pharmaceutical industry for nearly half a century to manage the mass processes of sampling and testing drug candidates, and those drugs ready for distribution into the healthcare system. Fast forward to today, and automation technology is so common within the pharmaceutical industry it now bleeds over into patient testing and research, commercial pharmacy procedures, patient medication administration, and more.

With the enormous pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to continue to discover and develop new drugs, competition is now an endemic part of healthcare research. Automating repetitive processes like counting, batching, sorting, and packaging allows a much higher throughput while eliminating human error. Higher processing capacity coupled with well-documented and validated data are values now at the forefront of pharmaceutical logistics, especially since COVID.

The 2020 pandemic and the ensuing explosion of the e-commerce market changed how the entire healthcare industry worked, and industrial medicine was no different. Previously, the field was primarily B2B-driven. But with patient convenience and access taking center stage, automation has gone from beneficial to vital for pharmaceutical entities.

A recent survey of IT buyers by Bain revealed that, post-COVID, 80% of companies have or are planning to up their automation capabilities, but that less than half of them will likely meet their productivity goals, which is why the automation and control system company they use needs to understand the dynamic nature of the medical field, and all the factors involved in an integrated robotics system.

Understanding a Pharmaceutical Facility’s Automation Needs

Amongst the production needs of drug manufacturers and medical research facilities include:

(1) the ability to rule out potential drug candidates quickly and effectively while remaining FDA-compliant

(2) surety that their IT system is secure enough that their intellectual property won’t be compromised

(3) that the data these automated systems put out is easily monitored, read and analyzed.

FDA requirements are extremely stringent in the medical field. The drug development process requires several assays to be tested before moving a new medicine to human trials. Automation streamlines these processes:

  • Removing the need to manually test a drug’s absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion rates speeds the elimination process exponentially.
  • Streamlining strict clean room procedures and integrating the robotics equipment with a comprehensive monitoring system improves the sanitizing process by keeping the clean room consistent and reducing the human labor needed.
  • Integrated control systems gather, record and allow real-time user access to all the automated systems in a medical facility, eliminating holes and mistakes in documentation and validation processes.

IT design is an integral piece of pharmaceutical automation systems. Medical manufacturers, whether it’s vaccines, medications or devices, need all-encompassing cybersecurity to protect the integrity of their processes/products as well as other proprietary assets like recipes, research notes and trial data. IT systems need to be as flexible as they are impenetrable so that the facility remains secure even as their robotics systems continue to develop and scale.

A pharmaceutical company automating their processes also requires robust information management systems. In medicine, there are complex relationships between different sets of data; researchers and engineers need a control system that allows for a wide-angle view of various sets of data to accommodate for the intricacies of analysis.

Integrated controls for automated equipment offers safety monitoring, remote access, rapid discovery and response to compliance problems, and proactive operational maintenance. Pharmaceutical automation companies can create integrated systems that allow users to analyze operations in precise, readable ways. E Tech Group engineers utilize the latest in automation software when designing a building’s robotics and control systems.

Staying Ahead of the Production Curve with Flexible Robotics

Digital automation technology is developing as rapidly as pharmaceutical manufacturing, which means that the applications of robotics and AI in industrial and commercial pharmaceuticals have proliferated. In addition to benefits associated with processes, pharmaceutical automation can be applied in a number of other operations.

With regard to pharmaceutical logistics, automation can simplify administrative operations:

  • Finance: accounts payable/receivable, payroll, tax processes, reporting, bank and intercompany payments/receipts, expense analysis and reporting
  • HR: time records and validation, master employee data management, expense management, compliance tracking and training.
  • IT: help desk and testing management, server and security monitoring
  • Planning: data analytics and management, inventory management and demand forecasting, procurement data management, supplier and contractor management

With regard to the process of developing, producing and distributing a drug, automation reduces or eliminates the need for human labor in:

  • Dosing (granule, powder, liquid)
  • Packaging (sorting, counting, filling, bottling)
  • Processing systems (granulation, blending, extrusion, etc)
  • Tablet manufacturing (compression, encapsulation, coating, etc)
  • Traceability (product tracking, RFID labeling, quality management, etc)

Many of these repetitive tasks are completed in conveyor and sorting equipment which, when automated, amplify throughput in transferring, inspection, grouping, and rejection – all key aspects of keeping a tight leash on quality control for outgoing products.

As drug trials, developments and approvals expand, so, too, will medical manufacturers need to expand their capabilities. They’ll need to produce more, and they’ll need to be able to produce an increasing number of different products. This will require adaptable robots and intuitive control systems that optimize a facility’s ability to outrun growing competition without compromising the quality of their laboratory and manufacturing processes.

Our automation partners at Rockwell and Siemen’s offer automation software specifically designed for the needs of the pharmaceutical industry. Rockwell’s PharmaSuite® MES offers end-to-end coverage for a facility’s processes with a design focused on efficiency and scalability. In the same vein, Siemen’s SIMATIC SIPAT PAT allows for continuous manufacturing, increasing output by 30% and reducing operational costs by 10-20%.

Benefits of Automating Pharmaceutical Facilities

The advantages of automating a medical production facility cannot be understated. Every type of pharmaceutical entity – from a drug giant to a small medical device startup – can harness the power of robotics automation to improve their operations. Benefits of building-wide automation include:

  • Accuracy: There is no performance curve for things like mixing, stirring, tableting, weighing, etc. Automation eliminates human error and subsequently product defects.
  • Sterility: Less human contact with the pharmaceutical components leads to less contamination.
  • Efficiency: Automation speeds production and can allow a facility to transition to continuous processing.
  • Visibility: An integrated control system gives transparent access to data, allowing problems to be identified and remedied quickly.
  • Analytics: Access to data and user-friendly HMIs allow for data analytics that can inform on inefficiencies in processes workflow, etc, as well as help plan for and predict changes.
  • ROI: An automated pharmaceutical facility will see energy costs fall, waste reduced, throughput increased, quality improved, and need for labor reduced.

Challenges the Pharmaceutical Industry Faces with Automation

Implementing building automation at a pharmaceutical facility affects more than production quality and throughput. And biology and chemistry are vastly complex fields of science; not every process is as easily automated as another.

The pharmaceutical industry and the companies designing their automated systems will face growing pains they’ll need to face collaboratively. Just as in any clinical trial, all the variables will have to be managed properly in order for a medical entity to achieve its quality and productivity goals:

  • Automated processes will need to be scalable.
  • Automation technology will need to encompass increasingly more complex processes.
  • Pharmaceutical companies will need to reorganize job structure to compensate for labor shortages and transition employees to different positions.
  • Robotics will need to increase the learning capabilities of its software.
  • Subjective analysis of skilled human labor will need to work with the objective analyses of AI.
  • Systems will need to be adaptable to accommodate both new treatments and novel applications of existing treatments.

Futureproof Your Pharmaceutical Facility with Scalable Automation

Healthcare research and production facilities require flexible, scalable automation solutions to keep up the rapid process of drug sampling, testing, counting, and manufacturing. E Tech Group’s extensive experience in industrial life sciences allows us to offer pharmaceutical clients leading-edge automation integration and control system design that keeps them competitive and cost-efficient.

The benefits that state-of-the-art facility automation has to offer pharmaceutical companies make robotic systems a must for a medical products manufacturer to successfully pivot in this evermore consumer-driven field. When it comes to the field of industrial medicine, change is a constant reality. And as digital technology continues to improve, so, too, will our ability to create, produce and distributed life-changing medications and life-saving treatments to consumers.

E Tech Group is a nationwide pharmaceutical automation company with capabilities across a wide variety of life science fields, including emerging biotechnologies. We design and implement robust, adaptable control and IT systems that keep your documentation thorough and your processes validated, so you can stay at the forefront of drug research and development.