Innovation in life sciences amid a pandemic
We have now passed the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, which forced the entire nation into lockdown; and still today, we find ourselves managing new clusters and following a strict quarantine process for returning travellers. A reminder that we are all still living and working in unpredictable times.
During the early stages of the virus, there was a lot of anticipation over how the world would ‘return to normal’ once a vaccine had been discovered. But the predicted ‘V-shaped’ economic bounce-back that analysts forecast never eventuated. The reality has been far more sobering, with government scientists and medical experts expressing “cautious optimism” — optimism that is now real, with a variety of reliable vaccine candidates available and a vaccination program underway.
It is worth noting that vaccines are just one — albeit crucial — aspect of bringing COVID-19 under control. Since the virus was first identified, the life sciences sector has played an outsize role in disease management: from prevention (manufacturing of hand sanitisers and personal protective gear), to diagnosis (development of swab testing kits and antibody tests), to treatment (ventilators), and now to the discovery of vaccines.
With epidemics set to become a regular part of this century due to prevalent urbanisation, globalisation and factory farms, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the life sciences industry.
The unprecedented speed at which the pharmaceutical companies have successfully developed vaccines for COVID-19 is to be applauded. After all, taking lab testing, human trials and various rounds of scientific, commercial and regulatory approvals into account, experimental drugs average a span of 12 years to hit the market.
This achievement is due to several factors — the researchers, the universities, governments, making human trials more efficient and much more. It is also due to the fact that some of the organisations involved embraced digital transformation and were better positioned to adapt to immediate demands while maintaining production of other critical items.
Here are three key areas in which life science companies should look to digitalise.
1. Maintaining safety and business quantity
Employees in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors are still subject to standard social distancing measures. Unlike their office-based peers, equipment operators, manufacturing plant workers and lab technicians are just some roles that require a physical presence onsite.
Skyrocketing demand for medical equipment and life-sustaining drugs meant pharmaceutical firms were tasked with the additional challenge of keeping production lines moving faster than ever during this crisis.
Deploying remote technologies
Building capability to manage operations remotely is paramount to maintaining plant safety while safeguarding business continuity. For example, augmented reality (AR) provides machine operators with step-by-step instructions directly to smartphones, tablets and wearable devices such as smart glasses. This enables telecommuting supervisors to provide guidance to their site-based colleagues. It also allows for technical specialists to remotely troubleshoot and support manufacturing operations without stepping foot in the plant.
2. Addressing fluctuating demand at scale
Global supply chains have been hampered by worldwide lockdowns, travel restrictions and labour shortages as a direct result of the pandemic. Despite laboratories, medical testing facilities and manufacturing plants being stretched to maximum capacity, many life science players are hesitant to expand for fear of uneven demand patterns and prolonged economic uncertainty.
Connecting an enterprise with IoT technologies
The Internet of Things (IoT) gives businesses greater oversight and predictability of supply chains as well as allowing them to gain a more holistic control of their assembly lines, which are fundamental to increasing efficiency and scalability to meet heightened demand as well as adapting rapidly in accordance to fluctuating future needs.
3. Allowing agility, adaptability and knowledge transfer
To ameliorate the shortage of medical supplies, many businesses have pivoted towards directly addressing the demand for health care. Notable instances include luxury conglomerate LVMH converting perfume factories to make hand sanitisers; consumer technology firm Dyson temporarily began developing ventilators; and Kodak, once synonymous with analog photography, announcing a strategic shift towards becoming a pharmaceutical player. Altering manufacturing capabilities and reskilling employees requires significant investment. This necessitates a means to quickly adapt production lines and skillsets, while retaining the flexibility to switch back.
Enabling flexible manufacturing lines through ICT
Independent cart technology (ICT) allows businesses to rapidly adapt to changing demands and deliver increased throughput and much faster machine changeover times to produce new products at scale. A high degree of automation means that less on-site intervention is required than with traditional production lines, enabling plants to run effectively without staff being physically present.
Combined with analytics, simulation and other cutting-edge technologies, such as wireless power transfer and wireless communication, ICT can elevate manufacturing to the next level. Data analytics provide full transparency into how machines are running — maximising uptime — while AR and virtual simulations can be leveraged to create digital twins allowing for device optimisation.
Racing against time
For the research labs, pharmaceutical firms and biomanufacturers racing against time, accelerating production capabilities and reducing time to market is key to saving as many lives as possible as new variants of COVID-19 occur. To address the added layer of complication brought on by the disruption to global supply chains, Rockwell Automation has managed to reduce production turnaround time from weeks to just days by helping manufacturers quickly implement innovative automation solutions at scale, while helping ensure adherence to the stringent regulatory and compliance requirements for medical devices.
Charting a digital roadmap for the future
Digitalisation marks the future for all industries, not just life sciences. In the short term, it allows for quick wins: efficiency, adaptability and business continuity. In the long run lies the real reward — a trove of interoperable and real-time data that can be mined to analyse trends, anticipate future needs and build the framework for innovation and scientific discoveries, at speed and at scale.
When implemented successfully, the digital transformation of operations and processes seamlessly merges the formidable capabilities of human knowledge and artificial intelligence, and ultimately helps us all stay ahead of the next epidemic.
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