Pharma Suppliers See Training as Competitive Advantage

Oct. 18, 2010
As drug manufacturers struggle to train their workers, solution providers step in to help.

As manufacturers struggle to train their workers, expect solution providers to rush to their rescue. The economic crisis of 2008 and beyond has dramatically change the training landscape, but probably for the better, says Jim Siemers, Manager of Educational Services at Emerson Process Management. It used to be that Emerson clients would journey to its Austin, Texas training center for classroom instruction and live simulation on DeltaV and other Emerson systems. When the crisis hit, Siemers says, travel and training budgets were the first to go, and Emerson was forced to adapt and make training available remotely.

Clients “still really needed the training,” he says, “but they needed a lower-cost option.” Emerson set up a remote classroom in Austin, by which students anywhere in the world could view instructors via live video feeds, access PowerPoint slides, ask questions, chat with other students, take tests, and mirror the experience that they’d have were they right there in Austin. “We weren’t going to do anything remote that cut into the time and skill sets that people needed to learn,” Siemers says.

Perhaps most critical was the ability to access DeltaV training systems remotely and perform fundamental simulation activities. The ability to simulate actual factory experience, and now to be able to do it remotely, is driving a revolution in training. Siemers says Emerson’s simulation training business has doubled in the past three years.

One major pharmaceutical customer, in fact, has decided to outsource all of its training to the Austin remote classroom. “They don’t want to have all of the training equipment, maintenance requirements, and so on in their own facility,” Siemers says.

Economics has been the catalyst for going remote, says Siemers, but compliance is also driving training to be more web-based, where operator training can be accelerated, while also monitored and documented. Drug manufacturers are taking their training obligations much more seriously, he adds. In the past, training was seen as a “necessary evil”, but now manufacturers are beginning to connect successful training with improved performance and a clear return on investment. And they know that FDA is inspecting training records more rigorously than before.

Is training a competitive advantage for vendor companies? Absolutely, says Bill Sicari, Manager of Festo Corp.’s Didactic group, a separate profit-making arm of the automation company. Didactic offers general technical training—mostly vendor-neutral, Sicari says—for the process industries, and knowing that Festo values and provides comprehensive training is a draw for many clients, he says.

Like Siemers, Sicari says manufacturers just can’t afford to send their top workers offsite for days or weeks to get the skills they need. As such, Didactic conducts web-based assessments, factory-based seminars (“we ship all our equipment in,” he says), and even has a 53-foot tractor trailer—its Mobile Mechatronics Lab—that it drives around to manufacturing sites and uses to train up to 20 students at a time.

Sicari has also found that manufacturers are challenged to find skilled personnel, despite the high unemployment rates in the U.S. and elsewhere. Festo conducts holistic training, a good measure of theory in addition to hands-on, applied work. “There are so many technologies required to run a factory today, you need to teach a little bit of everything,” Sicari says. Companies are looking for “general practitioners” who know what to do 90% of the time, he says, and know to call in a specialist the other 10%.

Much of training Sicari’s group does is for high school and college faculty—that is, training the trainers. “Community colleges lost their way,” he says. “The instruction didn’t keep up with current technologies.”

How to convince manufacturers that the training more than pays for itself? It’s not just a matter of having skilled personnel, he says. It’s also getting the most bang for their buck in terms of the products and technologies that they have purchased. “Training closes the loop in automation technology,” he says.

About the Author

Paul Thomas | Senior Editor