The rise of lights-out automation in medtech

The global pandemic sped up digital transformations for businesses across the globe. Dr Chantelle Kiernan, Senior Scientific Advisor - Innovation & Digital Transformation (Manufacturing), IDA Ireland, explains how the health crisis accelerated lights-out manufacturing in Ireland’s medtech industry.
The global pandemic sped up digital transformations for businesses across the globe. Dr Chantelle Kiernan, Senior Scientific Advisor – Innovation & Digital Transformation (Manufacturing), IDA Ireland, explains how the health crisis accelerated lights-out manufacturing in Ireland’s medtech industry.

No matter which area of digitization, it’s clear that the speed of transformation has soared since the pandemic began. Regardless of their sector, leaders have had no choice but to increase their technical understanding to troubleshoot the challenges of the last 18 months and look ahead to how technology can facilitate life post-pandemic.

It’s for this reason that the movement towards Industry 4.0, or lights-out manufacturing, in the biopharmaceutical and medtech industries has accelerated, becoming an unexpected result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Similarly to regular professionals who relied on cloud computing, video conferencing and other technologies to tech-up and enable home working during the current pandemic, in parallel, digitally-enabled factory automation began increasing rapidly in many industries during this period. These technologies will no doubt be hallmarks of the last year for those companies who have succeeded in adopting them to alleviate associated pandemic challenges.

Driving productivity during the health crisis

Prior to the pandemic, many manufacturing companies across all sectors had started trialling Fourth Industrial Revolution initiatives. Few, however, had succeeded in integrating the necessary technologies at scale, which negatively impacted their ability to demonstrate economic and financial benefits. When lockdown restrictions were implemented around the world, the fragility of the supply chain was highlighted, accelerating the need to implement and embrace technology solutions to make them more resilient to disruption.

Organizations from many sectors needed to digitize to be able to continue operations. In some cases, this required involving specialists to help them understand what was required to progress and migrate operations to lights-out automation as much as possible. The whole conversation around Industry 4.0 was accelerated as a result: it was no longer a ‘nice to have’, it was mission-critical.

The nature of the medtech sector’s product and plant configurations placed them in a better position to react early and migrate to lights-out manufacturing. Conversely, for sectors such as pharmaceutical, the step change was hindered due to the presence of more mature plants and processes which incumbered adoption of this approach at scale. For those able to implement solutions quickly, productivity was maintained or enhanced whilst also having the benefit of catapulting these companies onto the industry 4.0 journey, enabling transformation of current operations. In such instances, companies were able to harness the benefits of technologies such as robotics, advanced automation, cloud computing, AI, machine learning and advanced enterprise software.

Medtech companies leading the way in Industry 4.0

Medtech companies based in Ireland have certainly had an advantage when it comes to adapting to Industry 4.0 solutions. Well-known enterprises such as J&J, Boston Scientific and Stryker have long-established operations in the country, having been attracted by the highly interconnected ecosystem, talent pool and regulatory regime that supports a thriving life sciences industry.

Ireland has a vibrant life sciences sector with sub sectors of biologics, pharmaceutical and medical technologies and devices. Pre-Covid-19 this ecosystem was already discussing how to migrate towards industry 4.0 solutions; however, the pandemic had the unintended consequence of accelerating this transformation. Prior discussions were critical in enabling first mover advantage for many companies in quickly deciding what technologies to focus on and how to implement them to drive competitiveness, create value and mitigate against supply chain shocks. More recently the IDA Ireland conversation with industry has evolved to the potential of Industry 5.0 solutions, to not only deliver the new competitiveness and value created through Industry 4.0, but also to additionally migrate operations to more environmentally friendly and sustainable production methodologies which place the wellbeing of the worker at the core of their emerging strategies.

Amongst the organizations taking strides in Industry 4.0 is J&J DePuy Synthes – a medical device manufacturing facility at Ringaskiddy, County Cork that produces replacement hip and knee joints. The site is one of two J&J sites in Ireland, the other being Janssen Biologics, which have both been designated as global lighthouses by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for embedding internet of things (IoT) into modern production. Lighthouses are selected from a survey of global manufacturing sites based on a successful track record of implementing Industry 4.0 technologies.

DePuy Synthes Cork used IoT technologies to produce digital representations of physical assets resulting in advanced machine insights, which helped to decrease operating costs and machine downtime. Janssen’s Cork site has digitally connected research and development and internal and external manufacturing and has deployed advanced process control solutions to drive near real-time visibility of supply chain status. While reducing costs by 20 per cent, this has additionally improved reliability by 50 per cent and accelerated technology transfers.

Continued digitalization in Ireland

So many businesses are considering the benefits of migrating to digitally enabled operations and additionally assessing how increased digitalization can unlock further value, competitiveness and enable resilience. To enable manufacturing transformation and help companies on these journeys, a new national Advanced Manufacturing Centre (AMC) will open in Limerick in early 2022. Led by IDA Ireland, the AMC will help both multinational and indigenous manufacturers to access, try, adopt, deploy and scale smart manufacturing technologies. It will help companies understand where they might implement emerging technologies to transition current manufacturing into smart manufacturing, as well as focusing on upskilling for future production capability needs.

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Personally, professionally and industrially, we have all undergone a period of unprecedented change with technology becoming pervasive in our collective abilities to meet the many challenges this pandemic introduced. Whilst keeping us, our families and friends safer from harm, unintendedly, it has also accelerated a more pronounced move into this next way of industrial revolution, paving the way for more efficient, agile and intelligent operations. Industry 4.0 and ‘smart manufacturing’ is now on the rise, and with Industry 5.0 coming into focus too, sustainability will be at the core of future solutions. The agility and responsiveness of the medtech sector sets them in good stead to lead the way in this next wave of transformation.

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Amber Donovan-Stevens

Amber is a Content Editor at Top Business Tech

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