Biotech and pharma companies are starting to implement augmented reality technologies at their manufacturing facilities, bringing forth a whole new world of possibilities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst to embracing new ways of working. Travel restrictions and limited access to facilities have pushed the adoption of technologies that enhance remote work. This is the case of augmented reality (AR), which is starting a silent revolution on the pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturing floor.
AR consists in overlaying digital content to your surroundings, adding diverse layers of information into your vision in the form of text, images, videos, or holograms. When it is well integrated, AR can become a really useful tool to visually enhance what you have in front of you. In pharma and biotech manufacturing, AR is transforming processes, quality monitoring, and training, letting employees virtually collaborate to maintain supply chains and connect with suppliers and partners.
“We actually saw a massive surge in usage during the Covid pandemic as many organizations had to carry out more remote functions than ever before,” comments Angelo Stracquatanio. He’s the CEO of Apprentice.io, a company that brings digital transformation to life sciences companies, including AR technology.
“Organizations that are larger and may already have innovation teams in place will continue to deploy this technology quickly, because they already understand the immediate enterprise value and have the resources to invest in it for the long term.”
Factories where engineers or scientists are using smart glasses to obtain virtual guidance, operators working with remote vendors to detect equipment failures in real-time, or interactive training sessions planned by directors located in another continent, are already here. “The barriers to adoption are decreasing as the AR industry becomes more robust,” notes Stracquatanio.
Probably, the biggest advantage of AR is it enables seeing the production process virtually, without the need to be there. “It’s a game-changer for the industry. Individuals can have eyes and ears on site at a moment’s notice to address an emerging issue, or to host routine remote collaboration sessions,” Stracquatanio highlights.
AR can also increase control over the manufacturing process. Pharma and biotech companies cannot afford mistakes during the production phase. A little oversight might lead to serious consequences such as having to start from scratch, which can be very expensive and time-consuming.
A recent example is that of Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing partner Emergent BioSolutions, whose workers erroneously mixed ingredients from two different Covid-19 vaccines; this led to wasting around 15 million vaccine doses.
In the worst-case scenario, faulty products could cause severe side effects or even the death of patients. In this context, AR can ease the analysis of the equipment in operation and get a more complete overview of the factory’s performance.
Walking with AR across the factory
At their manufacturing facilities, workers can wear smart glasses and move their hands to manage virtual equipment commands, receiving instant notifications as the system generates data from a variety of sources. The smart glasses might inform the employee of a malfunction, an instrument showing signs of requiring maintenance, or an item that needs to be immediately replaced.
During a working day, we could see an operator who loads 3D models of biotech instruments, looking at specific pieces and relevant information appearing in the smart glasses or tablet. Meanwhile, another engineer walks up to a machine with a QR code, and instructions pop up in the glasses, facilitating access to the adjustments. A few steps from there, another colleague is looking at batch records, saving values into the system just via voice.
According to Frederik Thiele, Digital Product Owner at pharmaceutical packaging specialist Körber Pharma, the technology could enhance “any manual process step that needs to be controlled or documented and needs to be run very often, such as assembly processes. This allows to always get the same quality of execution and to avoid situations where an operator forgets steps.”
For example, the Swiss company Dividella, a subsidiary of Körber Pharma, has developed a data management system that incorporates augmented reality to guide employees through the facilities and improve team collaboration. Another example is the pharma company GlaxoSmithKline, which made use of AR technology to validate the design of a new aseptic manufacturing facility, ensuring that it complied with strict regulatory requirements.
New workers can perform expert protocols
Generally, training for the setup and configuration of manufacturing tools is based on standard operating procedures, frequently in the form of dense manuals with instructions difficult for operators to read and learn from. This forces experts to spend a lot of time teaching new employees how to manipulate the devices, such as syringe pump cleaning, which is a rare event but can be hard for a newcomer.
In this context, one of the biggest advantages of AR is that it provides three-dimensional guidance or virtual replicas of the equipment (also known as digital twins) for highly technical steps. This increases the learning speed and retention for trainees.
Company leaders can also make audiovisual captures of difficult tasks through their wearables. This can help less-experienced workers to learn the procedures through contextual step-by-step instructions at any time.
For instance, the computer software company PTC helped Watson Marlow, a British manufacturer of peristaltic pumps, to implement augmented reality. The technology is intended to translate the knowledge of expert engineers to new employees into its new manufacturing plant without the experts physically being there. This was complemented with another AR application for connecting to potential customers, demonstrating product capabilities in real time.
AR has also become one of the pillars of the laboratory service and support division of Thermo Fisher, which provides interactive training to employees.
Although these examples are solid steps towards the general implementation of AR in manufacturing, these technologies are still primarily associated with gaming or entertainment applications. Frequently, AR experts are not familiar with the complexity of biotech and pharma manufacturing. Collaboration between both worlds will be decisive for its full implementation.
“Biotech and pharma are severely lagging behind as other industrial areas like automotive are more willing to take risks and take chances with new IT technology like AR,” notes Mathias Schmidt, XR (cross-reality) developer at the pharma engineering company NNE. This is most evident in biotech companies, where misconceptions regarding the integration with their current systems or implementation costs can make smaller companies delay their adoption of AR technology.
“Small companies want to have bulletproof technology, so they usually do not want to invest in new technology. Only a few small companies would play the role of an early adopter,” explains Thiele.
In addition, the overloading of regulations and frameworks, mainly related to ensuring the safety of pharma products, is also slowing the adoption if we compare them with other areas. “The main issue that biotech and pharma are facing in terms of AR is that everything has to be good practice-compliant. This slows down not only AR development, but all IT technology adoption, such as the cloud.”
A smart factory
In spite of those barriers, virtual and physical objects seem destined to interact more and more across all types of industries. According to Grand View Research, specifically on the biotechnology and healthcare market, AR and VR are projected to reach €4.3B ($5.1B) by 2025 — an estimation made before the pandemic hit.
The manufacturing industry aims to continue refining the design of immersive experiences with high-quality and detailed virtual objects, higher transfer of data allowed by 5G connectivity, and lighter, more compact and efficient AR devices. Currently, limited device design options block the adoption for more AR uses, Stracquatanio notes. “The biggest challenge will be the evolution of head-worn devices. There are so many AR applications to choose from, but the actual device market remains limited, which can sometimes hinder an organization’s ability to deploy at scale.”
As the industry keeps growing, we will see the spread of AR solutions from R&D laboratories to manufacturing, allowing real-time analysis by connecting with machines that share information about how they are running and which maintenance steps should be followed. Almost any activity related to the creation of a biotech product could be susceptible to be integrated with AR. “I would say [AR can apply to] any industrial component that has invisible data. This applies both to digital and ‘physical’ data, for example what product is currently running through the pipe you are looking at.”
AR is just part of a wider trend, the industry 4.0, which pursues the full integration of processes and digital tools with sensors and other devices. In the future, working at biotech and pharma manufacturing installations will be integrated with AR, internet of things technology, databases, and artificial intelligence, enabling full interactive user experiences, which will assist with the most complex tasks and provide insights across all operations.
“The idea of connecting your people, processes, and environment is hugely beneficial. AR is the thread that brings all three pillars together,” concluded Stracquatanio.
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