Digital technologies can make drug production cheaper and faster. But the potential benefits go way beyond cost and time, says Eugene Jones, partner, life sciences, IBM Global Business Services, who cites product quality and supply chain stability as the real advantages.

For Jones—who also served as former leader of manufacturing IT at Bristol Myers Squibb—the degree to which a drug company benefits from digital manufacturing depends on how fully it embraces the approach.

“In its simplest form, digital manufacturing is leveraging technology to eliminate manual activities and optimize processes,” he tells GEN. “In a broader sense, it is leveraging the full breadth of Industry 4.0 capabilities such as IIoT, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to transform manufacturing operations and create seamless integration throughout the supply chain. The real lighthouse organizations are able to take all of them to the next degree.”

Some of these “lighthouse” organizations are leveraging streaming IIoT data to proactively identify potential interruptions to operations and make adjustments in real-time via a closed loop system for continuous production, according to Jones, who explains that this “approach ultimately improves yield—which in biologics or vaccine manufacturing can lead to millions of dollars in additional revenue.”

Designs on quality

Drug product quality is another area in which firms that fully embrace digitization are starting to see benefits, Jones says, citing new analysis by IBM.

“Quality Control operations are one of the biggest impacts on costs of goods sold (COGS). Companies that can automate as much of those processes can realize significant benefits in all three of the main benefit levers,” he continues

And Jones predicts that as bioprocessing technologies continue to advance, the companies willing to invest in digitization are likely to see other advantages.

“Some of the technology needed to fully automate quality control—such as inline sensors—do not exist yet or are not financially viable, but companies that are able to adopt them as soon as they will have a significant advantage,” he predicts.

Digital maturity

At Bristol Myers Squibb, Jones was a member of the Biophorum-IT consortium team that developed the Digital Plant Maturity Model, which was designed as a self-assessment and planning tool for drug companies. Based on the results from these assessments, it is clear some drug makers have been faster to embrace digital manufacturing than others, Jones says.

“Most of the member companies agreed that they were around level 3 on average and striving to get to level 4. Of course, some companies are more advanced than others, but it tends to be in pockets—maybe at one site or another,” he explains. “New sites certainly are highly automated, but it is much more of a challenge to implement related capabilities at older legacy plants.”

These challenges aside, Jones expects that for biopharmaceutical companies with the requisite resources, the adoption of digital manufacturing to increase.

“Most of my peers in the industry that lead digital manufacturing for the biopharmaceutical industry note that they are challenged to keep up with the increased demand for related technology,” he says. “The ability to implement and adopt Industry 4.0 capabilities is only hindered by one’s available resources—both monetary and personnel.”