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During maintenance procedures, production engineers can establish a live connection to remote technicians via augmented reality goggles.

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Facility of the future

Boehringer Ingelheim is pushing forward with the digitalisation of its production systems. The goal is to manufacture medicines not only more efficiently and safely, but also in ever-smaller batches tailored to individual patients. The construction of the new Launch Facility – which can produce cancer medicines, for instance, in very small batch sizes – represents a major step on this path. Using a virtual 3D model and virtual reality goggles, employees are already helping to plan for this smart factory.

Here a tablet press emitting tablets at high speed. Is that a robot arm over there automatically testing single tablets? There is a lot of space to move around in between. “I have a very good sense of what it will be like to move around the plant,” says Dr Peter Comes as he removes his virtual reality goggles. He is Head of the solids production in Ingelheim. So far, the ultramodern manufacturing facility which he has just visited only exists on a computer. Using the architect’s model and design drawings for the machines, data specialists have created a dynamic, three-dimensional copy of the Launch Facility which is currently being built at Boehringer Ingelheim’s headquarters. But with these VR goggles, this new facility for the production of tablets comes alive even now. Where construction machinery currently is making a din in front of Comes’ office window, the Launch Facility will mark a new chapter in pharmaceutical production from 2020 onwards.

The Launch Facility is a prime example of the digitalisation of production at Boehringer Ingelheim, but it is far from the only initiative of its kind: many machines at the company’s headquarters and other facilities have long since been networked, and a central registration system will soon collect, compare and evaluate data for entire production lines. The goal is to enable employees to identify irregularities and to eliminate problems in the manufacturing process as early as possible – possibly before they occur and not only when the final inspection reports that medicines deviate more strongly from the norm than the strict tolerance limits permit. At the same time, this final inspection will become significantly easier in future when IT supervises each individual manufacturing phase.

“Our manufacturing system undergoes a large number of extensive audits conducted by German and foreign authorities. Efficiency is a key issue for us here.”

Dr Anja Preissmann

Process optimisation through augmented reality: QR codes and visualisations guide through training procedures.

Networked production thinking reduces the volume of rejects and makes processes more efficient, just like quality management. “Our industry is strongly regulated,” says Dr Anja Preißmann, who is responsible for the production of all human pharmaceuticals at the company’s German facilities. “Our manufacturing system undergoes a large number of extensive audits conducted by German and foreign authorities. Efficiency is a key issue for us here.” One example of the new, paper-free processes is that shift supervisors were previously required to document manually which health checks and safety training courses an employee had completed before being permitted to operate certain types of machinery. In future, they will enter this type of information in the system digitally and can even directly link it to the machine’s control system: if an operator does not fulfil certain preconditions, the machine will not even start.

Boehringer Ingelheim’s production engineers are already using digitalisation in order to optimise existing equipment. To take the example of packaging machines: there is currently a lot of movement once the signal is given that a new batch of tablets is ready for packaging. Specialists then refit one of the lines, which is more than 20 metres in length, for the new job. The machines subsequently fill the blisters with tablets in a matter of seconds, push them into packages together with the package insert, and finally check their weight before they land in boxes for storage and dispatch. Depending on how many of the individual machines need to be reorganised, the set-up of a line can take several hours. During this process, every movement with each tool has to be exact. It takes up to twelve months to train new employees.

At least that’s the way it used to be: in a pilot project on one of the lines, augmented reality goggles are helping new members of staff with the set-up process. They automatically load the appropriate set-up programme by means of a QR code. Each individual work step subsequently appears in the employee’s field of vision via a prism in the top right-hand corner of the goggles. At the same time the employee keeps an eye on his tools and machines and his hands are free for work. “We have found that this enables us to reduce the training period for new employees to six months,” says Head of Human Pharma Supply Germany Preißmann.

In addition to these augmented reality goggles for the set-up of packaging machines, a second, differently configured model is available for emergencies. Previously, when a machine experienced a problem, a technician had to carry out an inspection on site, coming into the facility even during a night shift. Now, in that type of situation the employees can call the technician and put on the AR goggles. Through a camera fitted in the goggles, the technician can see on his laptop at home what the employee on site can see and provide instructions on what needs to be done. “This way, in future we will also be able to provide rapid assistance if our facilities outside Germany run into problems, without the need for a technician to fly over there,” says Preißmann.

Through a camera fitted in the goggles, the technician can use her laptop to join the engineer's view and provide spoken or written instructions.

The same applies for double checks, where employees currently visit in person on site for important inspections in line with the double-verification approach. This is a laborious process due to strict safety and hygiene regulations: it takes a while to get through the gates inside the facilities, and only a few persons are permitted to enter particularly sensitive areas at any one time. With AR goggles, one of these two employees will soon be able to carry out these checks from the office. The company’s manufacturing experts are currently even considering installing innovative blockchain technology in the goods receipt area. Cameras could scan package deliveries and check their codes against a blockchain database. That would make the purchasing of small batch sizes of packaging material more efficient. “For the digitalisation of our production system, we have already started a number of initiatives,” says Preißmann.

“We will be ready once individualised medicines for patients will no longer be an exception and become the norm.”

Dr Anja Preissmann

A look into the future: the three-dimensional model of the Launch Facility helps to improve the processes even before the plant has been completed.

In addition, Preißmann and her colleagues press on into an entirely new world: packaging machines will in future no longer operate along a fixed line as they currently do and will instead work as individual, networked modules. The filling, printing and packaging stations will be digitally configured for various medicines, quantities and different markets. Further stations will be added, if required. Human specialists and collaborating robots work together on the individual modules, and the level of automation can be freely selected.

“With the new facility, our goal is to produce individual packaging sizes at the same cost as huge batches,” says Preißmann. A mechanical engineer is currently developing and building this modularised facility and its components in close cooperation with the company’s experts – this is an individual item. “This type of modularised and automated manufacturing is a real innovation in the pharmaceutical industry,” says Preißmann.

The fact that employees can already view the Launch Facility today using VR goggles is not just a gimmick, by the way. It is intended to help to improve the processes even before the plant has been completed: anyone who has looked around the computer model of the facility will be able to put forward suggestions for improvements. “That provides valuable feedback for us,” says Dr Peter Comes. It is much easier and cheaper to implement proposals during the planning stage than later on in the finished building. This will also boost the machine operators’ attachment to their new workplace, according to Comes: “After all, it will have been built in line with their ideas.”

Back to packaging: Boehringer Ingelheim requires small batch sizes during clinical tests, for instance, where newly developed medicines undergo various testing phases. Developers typically require just a few tablets of a new medicine and then ever more of them over time, as the number of test subjects increases. However, small batches are also increasingly an everyday feature of regular production: even now, Boehringer Ingelheim produces very small quantities in the area of oncology. Cancer medicines are not mass-produced goods and are in part only packaged on the basis of an order for a specific patient in a particular country. Accordingly, the number of units is minuscule – it’s precisely the quantity required.

“It is much easier and cheaper to implement proposals during the planning stage than later on in the finished building.”

Dr Peter Comes

Dr Anja Preißmann is responsible for the production of all human pharmaceuticals at Boehringer Ingelheim's facilities in Germany.

This type of order is currently handled via fully automated mass production packaging lines, since individual work steps such as packing tablets in blisters cannot be outsourced. This means that technicians spend several hours refitting the machines. They then run the equipment for this very small order, even if this is just for a few minutes. “In future, we will package this type of order in the new modular packaging line,” says Preißmann. “We will thus be ready once individualised medicines for patients are no longer an exception and become the norm.”