Meeting medical needs with condition-based monitoring

18th January 2021
Alex Lynn

2020 thrust digitisation into the stratosphere across nearly every industry to speak of. With remote working and social distancing negating the number of ‘boots on ground’, it was up to the role of technology to bridge the connection both from a brand reach point of view and, in some cases, within the production belt itself. Over the course of the UK lockdown, manufacturing sectors such as pharmaceutical and medical reaped the benefits in terms of growth.

But keeping up with demand is never easy, especially amidst a global pandemic when speed of production became an ever-growing sticking point to meet the needs of scientific discovery.

Having been thrust into a digital-first world, businesses in these industries have had no choice but to adapt to survive. Here, Brian Imrie, managing director of adi Facilities Engineering, evaluates how technology has played a key role within the pharmaceutical maintenance strategy, and what changes are set to make a successful stay into the future.

Phasing pharma challenges

Amidst a global health crisis, it was of no surprise to find that the pharmaceutical industry experienced such a massive swing in fortunes. Key firms, such as Johnson & Johnson, gained a 7.2% market capitalisation growth, as their products sought to meet the needs of a health conscious world.

With such a drastic rise in the need for pharmaceutical products, distribution and manufacturing, the industry has had to contend with how to deliver all of this as safely and as seamlessly as possible. Medicines, by their very nature, must be produced in an environment that is totally industry and regulatory body compliant. There simply cannot be any room for contamination, both pre pandemic and even more so now, when such a life-threatening illness remains at the fore.

But with social distancing eliminating the number of workers that can operate on the ground, as well as the risks associated with having human contact in close proximity for production and facilities maintenance, there remain many factors in the way of delivering the perfect medical supply chain in times of crisis. Here then, is where technology makes its play.

Condition monitoring: the benefits

Living in an era of technology advancements, engineers play a vital role in the support of the pharmaceutical industry, delivering important systems management and maintenance that acts as an extension to manufacturers’ business needs. One of the technologies that we have been closely associated with throughout the pandemic is condition monitoring. Utilising the latest developments in technology and computer analysis, engineers are able to remotely identify and diagnose significant changes in crucial processes, which means early intervention is possible to avert a developing or impending fault. As an advanced maintenance technique, it is crucial in an industry whereby medical manufacturing simply cannot afford any periods of unplanned downtime.

The introduction of condition monitoring enables engineers to keep process and supporting infrastructure efficiency a top priority. It is also a gamechanger when it comes to reducing costs, since predictive maintenance can detect early problems before they become a costly fault later on down the line. This innovative technology acts through intelligent monitoring, measuring operating characteristics of vital moving mechanical parts or electrical switchgear, on the production lines and supporting services, thus recording every change no matter how minimal. This can be through aspects such as vibration, temperature, flow rates, harmonic analysis and more, all contributory factors that are of particular importance when looking to maintain equipment that prevents any product contamination.

While there may be the initial outlay for pharmaceutical manufacturers to implement such a system, the price for effective predictive maintenance and reliability improvements is invaluable in an era when medical production capacity is required to be at a premium.

Automation and AI

Many of the fears associated with condition monitoring, alongside cost, is the expense to which it has on human roles. At adi however, we’ve actually found the opposite, and welcome how technology such as this can introduce new digital-based jobs and upskilling programs that can go some way to helping address the STEM sector’s well publicised skills gap. Engineering is of vital importance to the UK, contributing over 25% to its GDP, so being able to continually stay ahead of the curve is paramount. Training young engineers to embrace, analyse and interpret these technologies, therefore, can be one way to identify and fill in those gaps, before it is too late.

At adi, we began this process back in 2016, with our pre apprenticeship scheme giving youngsters a core grounding in engineering as early as 14, igniting passions and inspiring futures in the industry, with the added prospect of working with some of the biggest pharmaceutical brands in the world. And what could be more of an exciting prospect than potentially being an individual who helps support such a key industry, pharmaceutical, one that is significant to Britain’s manufacturing fightback and is delivering good news across the globe with its COVID-19 vaccine from the University of Oxford.

So rather than being something to fear, AI and skills development go hand-in-hand. And quite simply, it doesn’t always have to be high-level, big initial outlay technology to make a difference to manufacturers’ lives. Since an engineer’s brain is just as important as his hands, the ability for computer software to provide automation for low-value tasks, such as administration and data input, should be embraced, and can drive vital efficiencies in medical production. Conversely too, just how AI can discover patterns within data through machine learning, it can also work to aid human engineering judgement rather than battle against it.

Invest in the future

With digital technologies here to stay, all businesses, and particularly those within the pharmaceutical sector, should be seeking to invest in automation and AI to improve their efficiency and boost business growth.

To thrive within the digital era, businesses that are driven by efficiency challenges in fast paced mass production environments, with products that have to be made to the highest safety, quality and regulated standards, must look to incorporate more training for digital-based roles and help bridge the engineering skills gap.

With over 5.5 million people employed across a variety of roles within the engineering environment, the sector generates over £455bn into the UK economy each year, proving its success and effectiveness. However, there’s an estimated 182,000 people with engineering skills that are required per year until 2022, which demonstrates the need to continue to fill the pipeline of talent.

The pharmaceutical industry is rushed off its feet and by working with experienced engineering support experts, manufacturers can drive business safety and instigate their own long-term success.

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