Optimising pharmaceutical plant production in the digital world

The virtual reality tours offered by GEA's DiGiTools improve both communication and customer interaction, and remove many of the hurdles involved in planning and building new equipment and facilities

It may be a while before facility design and build is 100% digital and the IT infrastructure is in place to project three-dimensional holograms of pharmaceutical plant onto your desktop, but the technology already exists that enables modern-day drug developers to step into a computer-generated world of augmented reality and experience new equipment and facilities before they become physical entities.

Thanks to DiGiTools from GEA Pharma & Healthcare, an increasing number of critical project milestones, such as factory acceptance tests (FATs), are now being conducted and completed online in a completely safe and travel-free environment. For example, the company has equipped its test centres with video cameras and conferencing facilities so that customers can participate in live product tests, virtual tours and demonstrations without actually being present.

Dr James (Jim) Holman explains: “Virtual tours now give us the opportunity to reach even more of our customer base. Particularly in recent times, when travel has been impossible, we’ve run digital visits that have accommodated 15–20 people. In reality, for space and safety reasons, that’s normally unmanageable! Yes, it’s nice to be able to touch and feel the machinery but, increasingly, the flexibility to be able to organise tours — for any number of people, from anywhere in the world — provides a significant number of benefits.”

It's now possible to visit, explore and interact with virtual equipment and three-dimensional plant models without leaving your home or office

Using remote connectivity, live camera feeds and smart goggles that enable instant two-way information exchange, it's now possible to visit, explore and interact with virtual equipment and three-dimensional plant models without leaving your home or office.

“We’ve welcomed parties from Bangladesh, China, India, the US and Japan for tours that simply wouldn’t have been achievable without DiGiTools. What’s more, we’re reaching key stakeholders, such as senior management, who may well have 2 hours to invest in a virtual demonstration … but wouldn’t take 2–3 days out of their schedules to travel to Europe for example.”

DiGiTools gives you the freedom to fast-track a wide range of projects and provide an agile, fast and cost-efficient way to design, plan and optimise a plant before it’s built. "But, it's more than that, the virtual aspect encourages more involvement from our side as well. Without the need to board a plane, etc., the time and cost savings are phenomenal. Naturally, we’re happy to receive local representatives as well, but we’ve essentially removed a lot of barriers in terms of availability, flexibility and efficiency."

Customer Benefits

From a human interaction point of view, it also enables better communication, fosters the supplier-customer relationship and helps to develop open relationships. “We know that a lot of our equipment sales are based on us being able to prove our technology. Without being able to show it, highlight operational benefits and/or run it in a live environment in front of the customer, we needed a new solution.”

The digital solution clearly worked; just four days after the online demonstration, a virtual handshake sealed the deal

One of the first companies to benefit from the virtual experience was a major Asian organisation that had been liaising with GEA staff about building a continuous manufacturing line in China. Unable to visit the GEA Pharma Solids Center (GPSC) in Wommelgem, Belgium, in person, because of the coronavirus lockdown, the company was subsequently invited to a virtual tour of the plant.

A large team from the CDMO dialled in to observe a series of online lab trials, an in-depth demonstration of the ConsiGma® CDC50 continuous direct compression system and the ConsiGma® CTL25 continuous tableting line, which turned out to be significant. Eliminating any concerns that the customer might have had, the digital solution clearly worked; just four days after the online demonstration, a virtual handshake sealed the deal.

“Although that event involved a lot of work from many people, I hadn’t seen that level of energy amongst our lab and sales staff for a long while. Furthermore, the immediate reaction was, right, who’s next? This was the proof of concept!”

It was difficult at first with some customers, who maybe didn’t grasp the concept, but they were soon convinced and, even using simple smartphone applications or online meeting platforms, GEA has been able to replicate traditional tours and even record them for future use and dissemination.

“We get a lot more questions during a virtual demonstration, which is maybe because more people are able to attend and we’re reaching a larger audience. Plus, the chat function means that they can simply write an enquiry in real-time. We have a moderator on hand at all times who can relay any questions to the presenter and then organise an instant Q&A session. It takes away the pressure of speaking up in a group or feeling that they’re interrupting. Any fears we had of silent tours with no interaction have been completely unfounded.”

GEA is currently organising virtual events in Wommelgem and Halle (Belgium), and in the US as well. “In terms of running customer trials, an added bonus is that we can now do them much faster. For example, our US facility did not have the capacity to do a series of tablet coating tests; so, using a remote solution, we transferred them to Wommelgem, maintained the same level of communication and information exchange … and completed the project two months earlier than if we’d had to wait for available equipment in North America.”

We’ve even jumped from the US to Europe on subsequent days with the same customer, removing the barriers of geography

Not only was the customer delighted, it showcased the fact that multiple trials can be done in several locations at the same time. “For another customer, we spent a virtual hour in Wommelgem looking at direct compression equipment on the factory floor; then, with a few button clicks, we presented our ECM and wash-off-line solutions in Halle. We’ve even jumped from the US to Europe on subsequent days with the same customer, removing the barriers of geography, allowing us to make better use of available capacity and, ultimately, providing a better, faster service.”

A Hybrid Future

Looking ahead, with no travel restrictions in place, customers will have the option to select either a real-world or virtual experience … or a hybrid combination of both. "We’re happy to host some representatives on site and, at the same time, provide a video link to other stakeholders who may not have the time to travel. Right now, using a hybrid model, we can combine real-world trials in the lab with virtual ones, depending on customer choice. But, as we further develop the technology and the concept becomes better understood and accepted, the need and desire for people to be physically present may become less of a priority."

A fully interactive, augmented reality tour hosted by artificially intelligent avatars may be too much to ask right now, but video introductions and virtual presentations are currently taking place for promotional and marketing applications. “What is key, both now and in the future, is customer interaction, the ability to ask and answer questions, and the opportunity to explore and engage with both the equipment and the people involved. Given that some of the tours can be several hours long, or even days, and include up to 20 people, the personal touch will always be important … in both the real world and the virtual one.”

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