Is now the time for Life Sciences turn to Automation?

Without embracing automation, the UK would be in serious danger of losing its position as one of the strongest and most competitive life sciences industries in the world.

The sector already has an annual turnover of more than £50bn, employing over 180,000 in 4,400 companies and attracting a huge amount of direct foreign investment. By increasing the use of automation on the factory floor – and a number of novel applications have already proven the importance of investment in such technologies – these stats are only likely to get higher and more impressive.

Mane are very familiar with special purpose machinery in the Life Sciences industry and is perhaps where our core expertise in the sector lies. We have seen first-hand how a shift from batch processing to a more continuous approach to manufacturing has been beneficial. This allows for an uninterrupted flow in the process from putting together the starting materials to creating the final product. By getting rid of individual batches, manufacturers can create more products for less cost while producing higher-quality drugs.

The technology also takes up less space, in some cases just a tenth of what is needed for traditional batch process equipment. Moving from batch to continuous processing does mean a major overhaul in infrastructure and a high initial investment, but the rewards are significant.

The life sciences industry has a huge amount to gain from investment in automation. A recent survey revealed that drug makers are among the biggest investors in manufacturing robotics, with 63 per cent of those questioned reporting they have spent money automating production processes.

One example is Eakin Group, a manufacturer of medical products, which will have invested around £7-8m in automation at one of its subsidiary companies, Pelican Healthcare. This has helped it generate an annual turnover of £28m. Eakin Group’s automated process line for the Cohesive Seal was last year replaced with new machines that can now integrate packaging, making production completely automated. As such, volumes of Pelican Healthcare’s ostomy pouches have risen from 2.5 million a year close to eight million last year.

Using software to digitally design the manufacturing processes for the UK pharmaceutical and life sciences industry is also a major component of streamlining processes and increasing automation. The ADDOPT (Advanced Digital Design of Pharmaceutical Therapeutics) project was launched in January to do just that. The project aims to use computer modelling to reveal new links between raw materials, formulation, manufacturing processes and drug product quality. It spans all operations.

Without embracing automation, companies could quite quickly find themselves falling behind and adopting it later on could prove more problematic, with those who chose to go down that route earlier, having a much stronger foothold.