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February 01, 2016 (Vol. 36, No. 3)

Augmented Reality Transforms Biopharma

Shed the Rose-Colored Glasses, Says AFS, and Put On Smart Glasses to Achieve Real-Time Oversight

  • Augmented reality is making it possible for companies to increase efficiency and reduce downtime. Apprentice Field Suite (AFS) is pioneering this transformative technology specifically for the biopharmaceutical industry.

    AFS’s technology combines smart glasses with biopharma-specific software to let people essentially see through others’ eyes. The software also overlays tags on equipment and lets wearers access data in their glasses, leaving their hands free for other tasks.

    These capabilities improve outcomes from remote troubleshooting and training, enhance situational awareness among maintenance personnel and operators, and increase efficiency for researchers and other technical employees.

  • Three Modules

    Click Image To Enlarge +
    Call it WYSIWYCHE, or “what you see is what your co-workers have enhanced.” It’s the view an on-site technician can obtain by looking though a Google Glass headset or similar device. Such a view, generated by an Apprentice Field Suite application, can focus a technician’s attention on a particular detail, as indicated by the red circle in this image. Notice the superimposed window, which could have been filled with timely instructions or reminders about standard operating procedures. Real-time informational overlays put the “augmented” in augmented reality. In the bioprocessing context, they can prevent costly mistakes.

    The AFS application has three components: Tandem, Manuals, and Gauge. “Tandem, basically, is a remote troubleshooting component,” says AFS co-founder Gary Pignata. “The best technicians can only be in so many places. Now a novice with smart glasses can collaborate with engineers or seasoned technicians for better service.”

    Enabling an engineer to see in real time— on a phone or tablet—what an operator is seeing brings immediate technical expertise to the problem without having to call an engineer onsite in the middle of the night or engage in the ambiguity of phone or text messages. And, if the engineer circles a panel or button on a tablet or smart phone, the operator sees that in the glasses, minimizing the chance of mistakes and reducing the need for emergency site visits, Pignata asserts.

    Manuals, the second module, is a heads-up display for data access. It can provide visual access to safety checklists, standard operating procedures, batch records, or other information through smart glasses. “Photos and videos are built into the databases,” notes Pignata, “so operators can see exactly what to do.”

    Pages can be advanced by voice commands or gestures. Pignata reports that users have told him hands-free operation has helped them increase efficiency up to 42% in procedures that require referencing written information.

    The third module, Gauge, enhances safety by providing clear indications of lockouts and tagouts. “When users look at equipment through smart glasses, they can see that locked-out equipment is marked with a red ‘X,’” explains Pignata. “There’s a clear indication it’s in use.”

    He contrasts that with the errors that have occurred with the plaque-on-chain method: “At the end of a long shift, one maintenance guy overlooked the plaque, opened the sparger, and spilled millions of dollars’ worth of materials.”

    Importantly, Gauge also notes when gauge readings are outside established parameters and color-codes them so operators know instantly if something is wrong. It translates analog readouts to digital information and pulls it into a database.

  • Augmented Reality’s Uses

    Augmented reality can reduce the downtime and increase productivity in any manufacturing environment. Contract manufacturing organizations (CMOs) and biopharma companies working with CMOs are particularly interested, Pignata says.

    CMOs are using augmented reality as a sales and customer service tool, he explains: “It helps them focus specifically on the process for each client and eliminates the concern that clients visiting the site will inadvertently see a competitor’s process.”

    Their clients find the AFS application minimizes travel to the CMO to address processing issues. “Some of our clients report it has reduced travel between 33 and 50%.”

    “Augmented reality is revolutionary as a training tool,” he adds. “The ability of learners to see a procedure from the perspective of the person performing it is transformational. With other training methods, it’s sometimes hard to see exactly what the trainer is doing, but with augmented reality learners can see the movement and replicate it.”

  • Augmented Reality’s Indirect Benefits

    While augmented reality’s direct benefits are less downtime and greater efficiency, its ancillary benefits are also worthwhile.

    The AFS solution helps reduce engineer turnover, particularly in incident-prone facilities. “Nobody likes to be called on weekends or nights because of frequent problems,” Pignata points out. AFS lets them solve many of those problems wherever they are at the time.

    AFS also improves time management, he says. “As one director of engineering told me, the next problem is invariably at the opposite end of the facility. He said that AFS ‘takes miles’ off the legs of his engineers.”

    This technology lets experts stay in place to assess problems. If the technology can’t immediately resolve an issue, it can at least save the time needed to walk to the new site and return. Then, when the engineer does arrive, he or she can have the information or tools on-hand to address the new problem.

  • Smart Glasses

    AFS is hardware agnostic. “We work with all the major hardware manufacturers,” Pignata assures. “We focus on the right hardware/software for each environment, creating custom tools for smart glasses and other wearable technology for biopharma applications.” That includes application integration.

  • New Company, New Technology

    AFS was formed about three years ago. “It was born from a biopharma environment,” Pignata says. “Our core team has years of biotech and pharma engineering experience, which members used to incorporate solutions to daily issues into our technology.”

    Augmented reality emerged in the 1990s and has since evolved alongside virtual reality technology. Now it’s finally reaching maturity. “Augmented reality technology today is lightweight and comfortable, and industry-specific applications are becoming available,” Pignata explains. Biopharma manufacturing is a leading example.

    At least four of the top 10 biopharmaceutical companies are using AFS technology today, along with many other biotechs and CMOs. Specific uses vary widely. Augmented reality is used in R&D labs, cleanrooms, manufacturing facilities, and remote sites.

  • Apprentice Field Suite

    Location: 155 Palisade Avenue, Suite 300, Jersey City, NJ 07306

    Phone: (201) 417-5028

    Website: apprenticefs.com

    Principals: Gary Pignata and Angelo Stracquatanio, Cofounders and Partners

    Number of Employees: 15–25

    Focus: Apprentice Field Suite develops augmented reality software specifically for biopharmaceutical manufacturing. The software may be used with smart glasses, wearable solutions, and other technologies.

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