Sanofi pushes hard into robotics and analytics to get most out of manufacturing

Sanofi Geel, Belgium plant
At Sanofi's "digital" biologics plant in Geel, Belgium, the drugmaker has installed sensors that measure more than 5,000 parameters along the production process and generate over 1 billion data points in every single manufacturing cycle.

Sanofi has spent the last five years and billions of dollars to create digital manufacturing plants that use robots and analytics as it pushes its processing into a brave new world.  

For example, its biologics plants in Framingham, Massachusetts, and Geel, Belgium, both use collaborative robots, or “cobots,” that will work next to humans for some processes and autonomous mobile robots for moving ingredients and equipment.

While robotics has been migrating into pharma plants for some years, the French drugmaker has made the transition to so-called digital plants a manufacturing priority, financing the transition with some of the €4.7 billion ($5.51 billion) it has invested to build out its production capacities in the last five years.

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That includes the €600 million per year it is spending on biologics production through 2020. It sees the new approach as essential to meet demand for medicines and to produce safe drugs cost-effectively as biologics make up the growing part of drug portfolios.

“I see great scope for using digital models and simulations to transform how we plan, design and operate our facilities from the concept through to delivering products to patients,” Philippe Luscan, executive VP of global industrial affairs, said in a Sanofi release.

In Geel, the French drugmaker says it has installed sensors that measure more than 5,000 parameters along the production process and generate over 1 billion data points in every single manufacturing cycle. Those can be analyzed to quickly spot and correct issues to keep yields high and to allow for predictive maintenance on equipment.

In Framingham, where all processes are paperless, it is exploiting flexible facility design so that much of the same equipment can be used to produce a variety of products.

Each of its supermodern plants has a 3D computer model of the actual plant, called a “digital twin,” that monitors all of the data and provides plant managers with a real-time view that allows them to make adjustments as needed.

Some of this design came from Sanofi's internal experts, but it is also working with startups in areas such as drone technology, operational analytics and artificial intelligence. One of those, iObeya, was key in providing digital visual management tools. 

This kind of transformation cannot work without employees who are fully steeped in the new processes, and so in the last three years, more than 1,100 employees have gone through the Sanofi Manufacturing System to imbue them with a “digital mindset and capability.” 

The changes for employees include having robots take on some of the more repetitive manual tasks once performed by workers, while operations staff shift their focus to using analytics and computer modeling to improve control and throughput by monitoring process performance in real time.

While a significant shift for workers, a Sanofi spokesman explained, the industry made an earlier transition in which workers had learned new science and processes to produce drugs. “It is like when we made the shift from chemistry to biologics,” he said.