Life science companies need ‘a supply chain that can react quickly’

30 Jul 2021

Stephen Barry. Image: SimoTech

SimoTech’s Stephen Barry talks about the importance of automation and digital transformation within the life sciences industry.

Click to read more stories from Automation Week.

Stephen Barry is the head of engineering of SimoTech, an Irish automation company that provides manufacturing automation and IT systems engineering, project management and validation services for the biotech and pharma sectors.

The company, which is based in Carrigaline, Co Cork, recently announced 70 new roles over the next two years to support its growth in the biosciences industry.

Barry has had more than 15 years’ experience working on a variety of automation and manufacturing IT projects spanning a wide range of industries including consumer goods, pharmaceuticals and power generation. He has also held a number of technical leadership and project management roles for several large global life sciences companies.

‘Digital transformation in a highly regulated sector is a must-have, not an option’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

I lead a team of automation consultants and project managers working on highly automated pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturing facilities. I normally work with leadership teams in automation or operations technology (OT) to conceptualise, design and deliver automation and manufacturing IT systems used to control the equipment used to manufacture medicines.

My role is to understand the end users’ objectives from a technology and operational perspective and to engineer the available technical solutions to support a 24/7 manufacturing operation. Being vendor independent, my role is to ensure the solutions implemented are fit for purpose and will match the lifecycle requirements of the facility.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

SimoTech is leading a number of large automation projects. One project in particular is a ‘factory of the future’ project for what is to become the largest contract manufacturing biologics facility in the world using single-use production technology.

This highly automated plant uses the latest automation technology and IT infrastructure and provides the ability to manufacture critical vaccines to meet global patient demand.

How big is your team?

We have a team of nine technical resources working from our Cork office with a further 60 engineers based on client sites through Ireland implementing automation, manufacturing IT and labs projects.

Our team are primarily STEM graduates who have previously worked in engineering roles for vendors, system integrators or technology providers and want to use their learned skills from an end user manufacturers’ perspective.

We don’t outsource any of our work, it’s all executed locally in Ireland, so we minimise the number of people between the engineer and the final end user.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

Smart manufacturing and data analytics are an integral part of any global pharma/biotech company’s corporate five-year blueprint. Digital transformation in a highly regulated sector is a must-have, not an option.

The challenge to successful digital transformation however is the wide variety of processes, equipment, age of systems, availability of budgets and production downtime to complete the transformation.

Digital enablement on a greenfield or brownfield project is now a given with all vendors and technology developers providing ‘digitally enabled’ equipment with open connectivity standards, making integration of diverse systems into central control systems and data historian relatively straightforward

On the other hand, take a manufacturing plant that was built 15 years ago with no site-wide platform standards, diverse islands of automation, poor IT infrastructure and little or no downtime to perform upgrades, then the task becomes challenging.

In these cases, strong business cases, robust planning, good funding and lots of patience are required and the reality in some cases there is no business case for digital transformation.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

Covid has shown us the importance of being able to develop, clinically trial, manufacture, distribute and administer critical medicines in the minimum time possible. To support this, we need a supply chain that is technology based that can react quickly. The industry is now engineering systems that can be easily configured and customised.

The objective is to reconfigure a manufacturing plant quickly for a new product without extensive re-engineering, software configuration or validation. The advancement in plug-and-play connectivity for manufacturing equipment has allowed medicine manufacturers to use smaller mobile equipment that can be easily reconfigured to suit the manufacturing process.

This also means that manufacturing plants can be constructed and commissioned with minimum knowledge of the final product to be manufactured reducing overall time to market.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

The convergence of IT and OT has provided significant opportunities to integrate, collaborate and analyse operational data both at a local manufacturing site level and corporate level.

Data integrity and resilience is critical for life science companies and we are partnering with our clients to identify critical data system with advanced data buffering close to the source system and centrally storing the data at the manufacturing network layer before replicating the data storage across geographically diverse data centres.

This convergence, however, has created additional challenge to managing digital security. Each layer of the IT hierarchy requires its own intrusion protection and many of our clients are building in increase network segregation to protect the manufacturing layer from external attacks. The ability to quickly isolate in the event of a potential attack is critical while minimising the impact to 24/7 production cycles.

The majority of our clients have ongoing system upgrade and patch management programmes in place, which ensure any legacy vulnerabilities are engineered out as early as possible.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.