Biopharma interest in industry 4.0 is strong and growing, but gaining the technologies and skills needed to switch from traditional manufacturing is still a challenge. The idea of Industry 4.0–combining physical assets with advanced digital technologies–is finally becoming more popular in biopharmaceutical manufacturing, according to Yvonne Duckworth, director of digital technology at consulting firm CRB.

“The appetite for 4.0 in biopharma is strong and steadily increasing. CRB organized and published a survey that asked over five hundred biopharma industry leaders an exhaustive set of questions to measure their challenges and appetite for new solutions,” she says. “Our report results confirmed what we are seeing: pharma companies are moving forward in their digital journey. Nobody is moving backwards, and only a small percentage don’t have plans to move to the next level.”

Digital maturity

But despite the elevated level of interest, digitizing manufacturing operations is still far from straightforward for biopharmaceutical companies used to more traditional production methods. “Some of the biggest challenges that firms face include high cost, not having the right skillsets, and lack of endorsement from leadership,” continues Duckworth.

Fortunately, in recent years, intra-industry collaboration has resulted in the development of guides and blueprints that can make the transition easier. Duckworth cites the Digital Plant Maturity Model–in essence a checklist designed to allow drug firms to gauge their current use of digital tech–that was developed by the BioPhorum Group as an example.

“It is useful for companies to assess where they are and where they want to get to. Once the level is agreed upon, a firm then can consider which digital technologies would need to be implemented to get to that level,” she tells GEN.

The model also lets manufacturers digitize operations at their own pace, helping them to investment in technology that is appropriate to their specific needs

“For example, if a firm is interested in Level 4–Predictive–they may want to consider the use of predictive maintenance, which would allow them to predict problems before they occur by using additional sensors and an analytics platform,” explains Duckworth. “A robust network infrastructure is important to allow a company to incorporate digital technologies, especially vertical and horizontal system integration.”

Digital future

Tools like the maturity model, combined with the ever-present desire for efficiencies, faster decision-making, reduced human error, improved productivity, and minimized downtime, will help biopharma make digitization a success, predicts Duckworth.

“There are many benefits to a biopharma manufacturing facility adopting a 4.0 approach,” she says, “Pharma companies are and will continue to push the envelope with driving towards digitalization. Traditional approaches may always have a part in manufacturing, but the digitalization appetite is there, and will continue to change the future of pharma manufacturing.”