Transforming tomorrow

8-Mar-2022

Shaping the future with better processes, GEA has responded to the impact that digitalisation is having on the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry and pioneered a suite of virtual technologies that improve the customer experience

Very few industries have been as directly affected by digitalisation as the highly regulated and quality dependent chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors. And, because of the advances that have been made with computer processing power and digital simulations, the commercial drug discovery, development and production landscape has not only been completely transformed in recent years, significant progress is being achieved on a daily basis.

By exploring the possibilities of remote service, support and project management, and the benefits of virtual training and real-time plant optimisation, GEA is already using a portfolio of digital tools to push the boundaries of what can be done in the non-physical world.

For instance, the combined ability of activities such as process modelling, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), discrete element method (DEM) simulation and the evolution of digital twins is enabling researchers to do things that were completely impossible just a few years ago. These technologies mean that drugs — based on both small or large molecules — can be developed and scaled-up using much lower quantities of expensive and complex active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs).

Digital twins

Using the production of highly efficient centrifuges for industrial applications as an example, GEA experts have discovered that by conducting virtual tests prior to finalising the equipment’s hardware, digital twins can determine whether the control system, machine and process function seamlessly together.

Despite the fact that the software element is usually ready very quickly, it was only previously possible to test it in situ when the control cabinet and machine were finished as well.

As such, if a fault was discovered, it could delay both delivery and commissioning … and inconvenience the customer. Now, GEA has established a centrifuge simulation tool for software tests during development, factory acceptance tests (FATs) and virtual commissioning.

Before, the software team was the last port of call prior to delivery. Often, they only had an hour or two to run the software and test it. Now, the control cabinet can either go straight from the supplier to the customer or, if it’s highly complex, it comes to GEA first to set the key parameters; this simplifies logistics and accelerates the commissioning phase.

Computational fluid dynamics

Similarly, GEA engineers are using CFD to optimise the design process for pharmaceutical equipment. When done on site, testing can be difficult and expensive. Computer simulations and modelling provide a low-cost, zero-risk environment that also generates deep process insight and a better understanding of how changes in different input parameters impact the procedure as a whole.

As such, CFD can help to reduce costs, expedite the design process and avoid the need for physical testing. It also gives developers a visual flow of information from any point in the system (which would be impossible using sensors or gauges), allows designers to model any set of conditions and gives them the freedom to experiment — sometimes pushing parameters to the extreme.

Beyond the machine

Plant installations and upgrades represent a major investment in both time and money. But, by using virtual reality (VR) and digital twin technologies, GEA brings components and facilities to life long before any building or fitting begins. Detailed process simulations allow customers to consider various options and scenarios in a more agile and cost-effective manner, and ensures optimum product quality after commissioning.

At the same time, pharma companies are eager to leverage Big Data to achieve greater transparency and predictability in their operations. Interpreting massive amounts of information, however, is not practical — or even feasible — in most cases, which is why AI and machine learning capabilities have become so important.

Now, for example, GEA offers app-based diagnostic tools that apply machine learning to link irregular machine activity with known causes of equipment failure.

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

Using remote connectivity, live camera feeds and smart glasses 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.

In fact, thanks to services such as DiGiTools from GEA Pharma & Healthcare, engineers have the freedom to fast-track a wide range of projects and access an agile, fast and cost-efficient way to design, plan and optimise a plant before it’s built.

Remote learning: GEA also provides targeted digital training for operators, managers and technicians using transient process simulation and VR technologies. By modelling production processes digitally, future users have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with their systems in the digital world, which is critical given the increasing degree of plant automation for which operating personnel often lack practical experience.

VR training tools can also be used to show operators how to (dis)assemble and operate machinery before it’s installed onsite or when giving demonstrations in person is not possible.

It’s also possible to liaise with colleagues as avatars prior to visiting the actual equipment — for testing or an audit, for instance — which allows you to discuss specific components of the equipment and see how the process works prior to using it.

And it’s not just a case of exploring a digital manufacturing plant, you can also get together in a VR conference environment and review plans and drawings that are automatically converted into 3D models. In there, you can take the equipment in your hands, pull it apart and pass it around the virtual table.

Remote support and service … and sales

As well as offering virtual planning, testing, tours and installation assistance from afar, GEA’s Remote Support service enables customers to use a commercially available mobile device in their own production suite to connect and communicate with an expert in real-time to resolve any issues.

And, for procedures such as plant inspections, GEA Remote Eye Wear means that customers can interact with a live service technician to provide support during commissioning and in the event of technical problems. As a result, response times are shortened and travel is almost completely avoided.

Of course, before any of this can happen, there’s an often-complex sales process — involving technical discussions, plant/equipment demonstrations, product testing and two-way exchanges — to find the best solution that provides all the benefits the customer is looking for.

Divided into different phases, it’s something that GEA takes very seriously. With a digital platform, though, the company is able to get closer to the customer, better understand their needs, strengthen the dialogue and become a more agile solution provider. And, once an order has been placed, the same tools can be used during the process execution phase to facilitate remote kick-off meetings, design reviews and regular status updates.

In conclusion

Digitally enhanced concepts such as DiGiTools enable suppliers and customers to work together in a more time- and cost-efficient way to deliver real and measurable benefits. As well as eliminating the need to travel and expediting FATs, installation and qualification procedures, they also meet industry requirements in terms of flexibility and sustainability.

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Taking a more collaborative approach to operational excellence, GEA’s online platform of process simulations, digital twins, augmented/virtual reality systems and remote support solutions represents a safe and effective environment in which to access, share and disseminate information, and a more agile way to transform tomorrow.

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