Engineering Angles: Crunching the data

June 29, 2022
How pharma can build better facilities by leveraging digital information 

Pharma has begun embracing digital transformation. Technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are used to automate processes and procedures, from supply chain management to identifying compounds that can lead to new therapies.

Pharma has also started to incorporate AI and ML into manufacturing plants. Sensors monitor machines to predict when essential parts might fail. They can track raw materials to ensure they are used, so the finished product stays potent for the correct amount of time. All this digitization improves efficiencies, provides products with consistent efficacies and reduces the odds of a recall.

However, pharma has been slow to embrace digital technologies in the design and construction of new facilities. For facilities, digital tools can reduce errors, improve safety and create buildings that inspire scientists to develop breakthrough therapies — and then expedite project deliveries to get these drugs to patients.

Better designs

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) has been around since the 1960s. It’s used to design everything from skyscrapers to mobile phones. While it can produce 3D plans, most Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) professionals rely on 2D renderings.

However, translating these designs into real-world buildings can have significant challenges. In recent years, Building Information Model (BIM) tools have increased efficiencies by allowing a cloud-based central database for projects that can be updated in real-time by many users. Equipment vendors can even add space and infrastructure requirements utilizing BIM tools.

In addition, BIM tools enable the use of immersive technology like headsets, providing visualization of the space before construction and during installation. Combined with augmented or virtual reality, this can show where wiring or pipes would be and allow electricians to place conduit runs in the right locations. With this level of detail, stakeholders can give better input into projects and have an easier time visualizing the flow of rooms, machinery location, or even the size of the breakroom, reducing the chances work will need to be redone.

Data to be mined

Pharma is laser-focused on data. Pharma companies employ thousands of data scientists to help with clinical trials and crunch raw data to see where novel compounds might produce extraordinary results. 

However, the industry is less focused on data about facilities. It could be as simple as installing AI-powered cameras in the workspace and seeing what areas of the building are underutilized, or building smart buildings to collect data from equipment to understand how a building operates.

Building a smart building and allowing AI to help reduce energy consumption is an easy effort that can impact climate change. Most companies already collect data from the manufacturing process but extending it to building performance and space use will allow companies to learn, improve, and satisfy employees.

AEC companies can use AI-powered cameras during the construction phase to track progress, recording how many hours workers and equipment were used for parts of the project. This could set a benchmark for future projects. What factors changed the speed of the project? Was it workers or a supply chain issue? Knowing what affected the workflow can help streamline procedures and techniques to improve overall efficiency.

Cameras can also improve safety. Typically, most projects might have only one safety officer on the site. AI could identify possible risky actions or notice if workers are not using safety equipment, like protective glasses or gloves. AI and ML could eventually be used on other parts of projects, from budgeting to operating heavy equipment.

New construction technologies are developed every year and can become overwhelming for pharma companies. But ignoring advances in tech to rely on ‘traditional’ methods is a sure-fire way to fall behind. The pharma industry has already learned how to collect and leverage data to develop innovative therapies, yet they may be slower to use these techniques in their new construction sites. There is a construction boom going on across the U.S. for R&D labs, space for clinical trials and manufacturing facilities. Will these new structures rely on outdated ideas or embrace the technology and data sources needed to build more efficient facilities?

About the Author

Gul Dusi | Director at Linesight