A young man in a grey shirt smiling at the camera in a home office.
Darren O’Brien, Amgen. Image: Connor McKenna/SiliconRepublic.com

What the role of an automation engineer is like

7 Dec 2021

Amgen Ireland’s head of automation discusses how this technology has changed the pharma industry and what it’s like to work in the sector.

Automation is growing in virtually every sector right now but, despite the many conversations about the topic, it can be hard to visualise the role automation actually plays when it comes to day-to-day operations.

To get a better sense of what automation can do, we spoke to Darren O’Brien, Amgen Ireland’s head of automation, about his role and how automation has changed the manufacturing process in the pharma industry.

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“We’re responsible for automation of equipment that essentially responds in millisecond time frames to multiple inputs and drive[s] multiple outputs as a result,” he said.

“Those multiple inputs are usually sensors. You can have thousands of sensors and based on temperatures, humidity, speeds, anything like that, the system needs to automatically take actions.”

To give an example of how this looks in pharmaceutical manufacturing, O’Brien spoke about the automation of filling and packaging individual vials used in hospitals to inject drugs into patients.

“We have machines that run at, say, 400 vials per minute and they run in what’s called an aseptic environment. So as well as filling these vials, we need to make sure that there’s complete sterility in the room while it’s happening and there’s no opportunity for particles or contaminants to get into the vials until they’re sealed.”

All those operations are automated, and the team maintains, operates and programs the systems.

As head of automation, O’Brien said his team’s vision is: “Everything that can be automated should be automated, and everything else should be simplified.”

Working in automation

With the growth of automation, it’s an exciting time to work in the space and O’Brien said the best automation engineers are the ones who enjoy solving problems.

“If everything’s working fine, the automation engineer should also not be happy because now they should be looking for: What can we improve? Can I make this run faster? Can I make it run better? Can I make it run cheaper?”

He said those who work in automation should also be excited about the ever-changing technology and always looking for the next tech opportunity.

In terms of what excites him right now, he said digital twin technology will enable his team to take more risks.

“Essentially, we can build a virtual representation of our filling lines or our packaging lines. And an inquisitive automation guy is then thinking: ‘Well, why are we only doing 400 vials per minute? Can I make it do 500 vials per minute?’

“And in the digital twin, they can tweak the code and they can tweak different parameters and they can virtually run hundreds of batches to see if the line could handle that. And they can do that without ever impacting a vial of product. So, risk takers are going to enjoy that environment, I think.”

For those who do want to work in automation, O’Brien said it’s a fantastic industry to be in and it always needs more automation engineers.

“The graduate programmes have really developed the last few years in this country. Amgen has a very good one and we have hired automation engineers through that programme. They’ve done a two-year cycle with us and we’ve been very happy with them and brought them on as full-time automation engineers afterwards,” he said.

“An alternative route, and one that I feel strongly about because it’s actually a route that I took myself, is if you can spend some time in an operational role in a manufacturing environment in the early part of your career, you can then transition into an automation role and it would really set you up with all the right skills and experience to be really effective in that role.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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