Barry Kennedy, automation engineer at MSD, is smiling into the camera in front of a screen with the company logo.
Barry Kennedy. Image: MSD

How this automation engineer found his footing in biotech

16 Oct 2020

Barry Kennedy, an automation lead at MSD, discusses how he ended up in biotech and why he thinks it’s a rewarding industry.

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Barry Kennedy is the automation lead for MSD Biotech in Dublin, a role he has held for two years. Having started his career as an automation engineer, he now leads a team that implements automation projects on site, driving its goal to be a “digital lighthouse”.

“This means ensuring that across the site, MSD Biotech is a leader in digital technology and an early adopter of various technologies or platforms,” he says.

Here, Kennedy talks about his journey from studying electronic engineering at University of Limerick (UL) to where he is today.

‘You may start out with the idea that you will be an engineer in a particular discipline, but there are lots of different strands and options’

What first stirred your interest in a career in this area? 

Back in college I studied electronic engineering in UL. At the time, there was a booming industry in both the pharmaceutical and electronics sectors, so there were plenty of strong career prospects. I remember completing my final-year project, which focused on automation and process engineering.

I ended up winning the UL Final-Year Project award and was put forward for the Siemens Young Engineer of the Year competition, representing UL. That achievement was pivotal in building my confidence and interest and really spurred me on to focus on control and process engineering.

Having really strong mentors and encouragement in UL was important and it ignited a passion for innovation, which is still as strong today as it was then.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

I could describe an atypical day as there is so much variation within my role and within the engineering sector! My role is very fast paced and while the day may start off in a standard way, typically it becomes really varied after that.

A typical day on the automation project at MSD Biotech could involve managing stakeholders and their expectations, ensuring we deliver the right communications and overseeing the piloting of new technologies on site. I also work with various teams and vendors on a variety of engineering or automation projects.

What types of projects do you work on? 

My core responsibility is to deliver the automation systems on site and manage vendor packs and control systems. In addition to this, I also look at ways we could innovate in our use of data and digital technology and assess how this can be incorporated further to improve our processes and delivery.

One of the largest and most challenging projects I have been involved in focuses on real-time manufacturing, plant-conditioning monitoring and analysis, providing visibility into overall system health.

This involved data being collected from systems in real time and then being applied with analytics and predictive modelling to detect faults, correlate events, classify fault severity and provide insights on failure prediction and the usable lifetime left on machines and maintenance recommendations.

The main purpose and benefit of this project is a data-driven approach to predictive equipment performance, such that medicines can be produced for our patients in a reliable and efficient manner. The project has been truly unique and innovative, and this has been recognised by leading experts in the field.

What do you enjoy most about the job? 

From a leadership perspective, seeing the team enjoy their work is a driving force for me in my job. I love seeing members of my team motivated and excelling in their roles.

I also love working for an organisation that is fully committed to digitisation. The focus on digitally enabling our MSD Biotech facility for the future is an incredibly motivating factor for me each and every day.

How has the role of automation engineer changed as this sector has grown and evolved? 

I started my career in automation and process control and stayed here for five years before moving to various different roles in pharma over 20 years. Now I’ve come full circle and have returned to automation.

In this time, I have seen a dramatic shift. Today, there is a huge appetite for data and digital and people have expectations for the latest digital tools. The pharma sector generally has been a fast adaptor in terms of digital and you clearly can see this across many of the day-to-day operations in MSD.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in this area, or just starting out in one? 

For someone who is at the beginning of their career and starting out in the pharma industry, I would say that you may start out with the idea that you will be an engineer in a particular discipline, but there are lots of different strands and options in engineering.

There are so many opportunities that it is vital to keep learning and to ensure you are open to the many different experiences available to you. I’ve seen this first-hand and across MSD there is a really wide breadth of opportunities within maintenance, process, facilities management, automation, IT or many others.

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