Overcoming the hurdles to digital transformation in biopharmaceutical manufacturing

Billy Sisk, Life Sciences Industry Leader EMEA at Rockwell Automation offers insight into the critical success factors for digital initiatives

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Billy Sisk

Across the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry, companies have reached different stages in their digital transformation journey. The industry is known for being conservative, so it is not surprising that there has yet to be a quick adoption of digital technologies in manufacturing.

As product and process complexity continues to increase, it is becoming clear that technology cannot be overlooked if companies want to bring products to market in a cost-effective and efficient way.

There are few companies that have managed to achieve full digital transformation in their manufacturing operations. In a recent survey, we found that 30 per cent of companies were currently stuck in the pilot stage, unable to scale up digital efforts from early-stage projects.

It is easy to prove a digital use case in a single manufacturing facility and see a clear return on investment. It is more difficult to implement the technology at the enterprise level in a timely manner and achieve the same results across other facilities.

Without being able to clearly define the impact on global operations, a digital transformation project will fail to secure the funding and support needed to grow. This can severely limit the scale and impact of the technology on the firm as the benefits are locked into smaller less cost-effective change management projects.

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The challenges holding back digital transformation

In the transition from pilot to program, a company must overcome several hurdles. These include: legacy infrastructure (e.g. equipment, networks and software), managing and leveraging data, lack of skilled resources and internal perceptions.

A core challenge is the age of equipment and networks in manufacturing facilities. As the manufacturing environment is highly regulated and validated, these are rarely changed or updated, leaving many plants operating legacy infrastructure. There are also a myriad of systems to navigate. Because these were not built with connectivity and interoperability in mind, few can be connected easily.

A customer recently shared that they were running more than 500 different systems across their global network of 30 plants. When systems are highly complex, it can be a mammoth task to collect and collate data to be used in new digital processes. There is no shortage of data available to manufacturers, but the process of transforming information into actionable insights is often highly time consuming and complex.

Another pressing issue is the lack of skilled resources. The pharmaceutical industry lags behind other industries, such as automotive or aerospace, when it comes to driving a digital manufacturing strategy forward. This means that the skill sets needed to run these projects are lacking and difficult to develop.

A final challenge is one of perception. While the message from the top may be supportive of digital transformation projects, there is often a disconnect at the plant level about how to fulfil such projects. Without a clear strategy, process and guidance, it is difficult for manufacturers to move forward with their initiatives.


Critical success factors for digital initiatives in manufacturing

Rockwell Automation has supported many companies through their digital transformation journeys and in doing so identified several critical success factors.

Companies that understand their core objectives and outcomes are more successful. There needs to be clear goals and outcomes by which the progress of any initiative can be measured. The organization must be aligned on this goal and understand the process that is required to reach it.

There must be a full examination of the digital maturity level of current manufacturing operations. An organization needs to understand what is installed in their plants and assess the maturity of their infrastructure, processes, technology and people to allow them to plan and achieve a digital transformation. Following this assessment, an analysis of the technology available in the market must be conducted with an understanding of how the technology will bring value to the company.

Finally, successful companies secure buy-in and senior-level sponsorship for their proposed digital projects. Support from leadership is essential. These projects require cooperation across many business units, so senior level support is needed to drive out any silo mentalities and encourage the different parts of the business to collaborate.

To succeed, biopharmaceutical manufacturers must change their mindset. Digital technology must be viewed as an enabler of greater profitability and productivity, which is essential in meeting the challenges of manufacturing the next generation of medicines.


Find out more about Rockwell Automation here.