Drug makers would benefit by connecting manufacturing tech through a so-called “internet of things,” or IoT. But setting up the required infrastructure is a multifaceted challenge and industry will need help according to new research.

IoT describes the practice of connecting technologies, sensors, and computer systems used in an industrial process. The idea is to capture, transfer, and model data to gain insights about the process, and even automate its control, in real time.

Many industries are already seeing the benefits of the approach. For example, in 2021 German engineering and technology firm Bosch established an IoT-based quality management system for its auto parts business which it says has helped improve fault detection and minimize cost.

The biopharmaceutical industry, by contrast, has been slower to embrace IoT according to the authors of new research, who suggest the sheer complexity biopharmaceutical manufacturing processes is a major factor.

“The inherent operational complexity of bioprocessing arising from the involvement of living systems or their components in manufacturing renders the sector a challenging one for the implementation of IoT” they write.

In particular, the authors point to differences in the types of technologies used during upstream and downstream manufacturing operations as a major difficulty.

Differential adoption of the technology

“Currently, adoption of digital technologies appears to be more widely accepted in upstream bioprocessing than in downstream bioprocessing. Automation in downstream unit operations is incomplete, which renders interconnectivity difficult, and the limitation in the number of in-line sensors restricts the volume of data collected, which prevents powerful control strategies based on soft sensors to be developed,” according to the researchers.

They also cite the lack of standardization in biopharmaceutical manufacturing operations as a hurdle, writing that “Each bioprocessing production is unique due to the different product and process specifications, which makes it nearly impossible to establish a universal IoT framework for the industry.

“There have been attempts from Allotrope Foundation, Siemens, GE, or IBM to standardize data or provide platforms to facilitate connectivity. However, companies interested in IoT implementation would still need to develop their own solutions, which is very costly,” the authors add.

In addition to manufacturing process complexity, the scientists identify the potential for misalignment of priorities within companies as well as the need for substantial investments, staff training and regulatory support as other limiting factors.

To encourage biopharma adoption of IoT the team believes that a sector-wide effort will be needed, with a focus on easing implementation.

“There is currently a need for universal solutions that would streamline the implementation of IoT and overcome the widespread reluctance observed in the sector” they write, suggesting that such solutions should include implementation strategies and employee training recommendations.

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