Management's View of Automation - Investment Value

  • February 25, 2013
  • Feature

Pharmaceutical Automation Roundtable (PAR) 2012 - Part 2

February 2013

By Bill Lydon, Editor

This is the second article in a series that are the result of the annual Pharmaceutical Automation Roundtable (PAR). I attended the Roundtable in November 2012, hosted by AbbVie, which at the time, was part of Abbott in North Chicago, Illinois. Lead automation engineers from pharmaceutical companies all around the world participated. This group of engineers has a wealth of practical knowledge and knowhow and is willing to share with other participants - truly learning from each other. This is the most knowledgeable group of automation professionals gathered in one place at any one time to discuss automation issues. A range of companies participated including AbbVie, Amgen, Biogen Idec, BMS, Genentech, Genzyme, GSK, Eli Lilly, NNE Pharmaplan, Novo Nordisk, and Pfizer.

About PAR

PAR was founded about 15 years ago by Dave Adler and John Krenzke, both with Eli Lilly and Company. At the time, the purpose of the roundtable was to provide a means of benchmarking and sharing best practices for automation groups among peer pharmaceutical companies. The group specifically does not discuss confidential or proprietary information, cost or price of products, price or other terms of supply contracts, plans to do business or not do business with specific suppliers, contractors, or other companies.


Prior to the meeting, PAR members asked colleagues at their companies to complete surveys about Management’s View of Automation. At the meeting, Dave Adler presented the results of this year’s PAR survey. These are my notes on his presentation and comments from participants:

Investment Value

This year’s survey asked questions about automation project return on investment (ROI). Respondents were split on the question of automation project return on investment (ROI) with 43% indicating it is usually achieved, 38% rarely, and 19% often. This may also relate to the question asking how capital automation project costs compare to planned expenditure: 35% usually, 31% rarely, 16% often, and 18% don’t know.

Participant Discussion

“Automation in the pharmaceutical industry has more requirements than other manufacturing that increase cost particularly safety, quality, and regulatory compliance functions.”

“I think people see what technology is delivering to the world - at home, on their computers - and then they contrast the automation in their plants. They see the gap.”

“There are a number of projects initiated to maintain systems rather than adding new functions and these have minimal ROI.”

“If you look at the portfolio of changes that we implemented on automation systems over the last 3-4 years, how many of those changes directly affect value? Then compare that to 10-15 years ago… My hypothesis is that the things automation groups are focusing on now are not operations and value related. They are more along the lines of upgrades or lifecycle support.”

“We are acting very tactical - maintenance mode and engineering change order driven.”

“Organizations in which automation is a separate function and not part of the decision process are further compounding the problem.”

“The automation group reports into the maintenance manager at many of our sites, disconnecting automation people from the process.”

“I put a group of people from different functions together to discuss automation. I asked the operations manager from one particular site if they bring in the automation people when brainstorming continuous improvement activities and he responded, ‘No, we don’t really talk to the automation people.’ He explained if there is an issue we call maintenance and they will call automation if required. The problem is Operations does not talk to automation and that breaks the chain. I have been telling the automation people they need to get engaged by dealing with energy, reliability, and operations. Get out of their little box and learn what other people want so they can implement it.”

“I think we got here in the early 2000’s when the emphasis was all on validation and ended up with a generation of automation engineers who were really good at the paperwork and change procedures. In a lot of cases they never learned how to be true engineers to make their processes run better. They are not on the floor like years ago finding significant improvement opportunities. I have no problem contracting out the people to do paperwork and have in-house engineers that are constantly looking to make us better.”

“I run some change advisory boards. I want the people that come with a request for change to put a benefit value on it. Many respond that they can’t do that - it is a compliance issue or it is something else - they try not to put that value into the change request. If you tell them their change does not have a high enough value the response many times is this is critical to our business. In many cases the change stops operators from making a mistake.”

“Operations expectations for reduced manufacturing costs are below average.”

“We are not being strategic and taking the 4 or 5 big business problems and coming up with solutions to those.”

“If you went through all the non-conformance issues, 25-30% of them could probably be avoided by implementing some automation. That would drive value. How many of our automation practitioners are looking at that strategically? How many of them instead are just receiving change requests? If we become simply a set of hands to implement changes then there is no point in an engineering staff. They should be stepping back and thinking about a holistic change that will eliminate problems and issues. In the 1990’s we used to do these things, but we were usually in front of our process engineering peers.”

“When I started you couldn’t start in automation until you had been a process engineer first, I don’t think that is standard anymore.”

“We train people by having them sit with the science and technology people who are asking for the change so they learn how things work.”

“We are not talking to the operations people to find out why they are not happy with us, what we are not delivering, what they expect of us. Then we can relate the value of capital investments for improvements.”

“People in automation do an awful job of translating their work into business value for management.”

“I have been asking automation people at the sites to put value on the work they do because we are getting “hammered” to reduce numbers. I am saying define the value you added to this company and this site.”

“We have a facility which is fully automated and we had a lot of debate on the value of it until the fully automated facility pulled way ahead of other facilities. We proved that automation is significantly better.”

Other Articles in this PAR Series:

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