GEA supplies pharmaceutical manufacturers around the globe with cutting-edge technology and application know-how that, in many cases, has been adapted to meet the specific requirements of the customer. Typically, these projects involve a lot of long-distance interaction between the client and the respective technology/application center experts and lasts throughout the entire lifecycle — from sales and product testing to project execution and service, including lifetime support.

GEA has invested in a digital platform based on in-house solutions and established partnerships to facilitate more effective communication and interaction with customers — wherever they are in the world — that minimizes the need to travel and, at the same time, expedites project execution. This platform contains process simulations, digital twins, augmented/virtual reality systems and remote support solutions that provide the perfect environment for digitally enabled project execution.    

COVID-19 and the resulting travel and contact restrictions were a timely, albeit unplanned, test for our Remote Services, which have exceeded all expectations regarding customer acceptance and experience, time savings and effectiveness. As such, we’re now offering them as our new business standard.

Digitally Enabled Project Sales

Selling our production lines or equipment is a journey that we take together with the customer; it often involves a lot of interaction, including technical discussions, plant/equipment demonstrations, product testing and two-way exchanges to find the best solution that provides all the benefits the customer is looking for. This voyage is divided into different phases, each of which can benefit from digitally enabled solutions. Our aim with the digital platform is to be closer to the customer and their needs, to strengthen the dialogue and become a more agile solution provider.

During the sales phase, we can explain and walk the customer through the plant of interest using virtual reality. “You get a live experience of the plant, an impression of the handling and accessibility of parts and a much better understanding of the design compared with drawings or pictures,” says Reimar Gutte, Head of BioPharma. “We can involve more people on the customer side as the virtual tools are remotely accessible; this means that people from different parts of the world can meet in a virtual room to discuss key elements of the design by walking though the 3D design model. By doing so, we can intensify the contact between our GEA experts and the customer and better showcase our expertise.”  

Virtual tour

Another important element in the sales phase is product testing. To convince customers to adopt new technology, such as continuous granulation, we have equipped our test centers with video cameras and conferencing facilities to let them participate in live product testing without being present. While being operated by GEA staff, we can share the process data, live pictures and the SCADA screens from the plant being tested in real-time without the customer or their team being present.   

For example, a major Asian company had been liaising with GEA about a continuous manufacturing line for their site in China. Unable to visit the GEA Pharma Solids Center (GPSC) in Wommelgem, Belgium, in person, however, the company was subsequently invited to a virtual tour of the plant.  

A large team from the organization participated remotely and observed a series of online lab trials, an in-depth demonstration of the ConsiGma® CDC50 continuous direct compression system and the ConsiGma® CTL25 continuous tableting line, which turned out to be significant. Eliminating any concerns that the client might have had, the digital solution clearly worked; just four days after the online demonstration, a handshake sealed the deal.

Project execution enhanced by virtual reality and remote support

Once the order has been placed, the same tools can be used during the process execution phase to facilitate remote kick-off meetings, design reviews and regular status updates, thus reducing or even eliminating travel completely. As the interaction is more focused, both sides can easily bring the required expertise into the meetings and act faster. It is much more hands-on and collaborative, resulting in a more positive customer experience and a clearer understanding of what GEA will deliver. All in all, it improves both the speed and efficiency of the process for all parties. 

Important project milestones, including factory acceptance tests (FATs), can now be completed online. “Using our video and data sharing solutions, customers can follow the pre-defined test protocols together with our staff without being present,” notes GEA’s Benjamin Kammerich, Head of Project Management for lyophilization: “We have successfully done multiple FATs this way during the recent COVID-19 lockdown and it has proven to be more agile, faster and cost-efficient.”  

The benefit of remote tools and our ability to offer remote support also extends to site work, including installation and IQ/OQ testing at the customer’s premises.

Build in China

When the implementation schedule for a multi-million Euro bioreactor system in China was recently put in jeopardy, a digital fix saved the day. Utilizing its extensive network, colleagues from GEA China, GEA Germany and the client’s own operatives worked closely together to establish a remote support solution. Video cameras and conferencing tools connected the teams on site, in the GEA China office and our Biopharma Technology Center in Hildesheim, Germany, and the project was completed on time.  

Also expanding its continuous manufacturing remit, a top-tier pharmaceutical company had recently invested in a second production line. With GEA staff on site to complete the installation qualification (IQ) and validation steps, though, the process came to a COVID-19-induced stop. The team was pulled out for safety reasons and the subsequent operational qualification (OQ) stage was put on hold. Working in collaboration with the client, however, GEA was able to use its proven know-how in remote support to fulfill the plant’s testing requirements. Using remote connectivity and video cameras provided a live webcam feed; the onsite staff were supplied with smart goggles that enabled virtual two-way information exchange with a GEA expert in real-time; and twice daily “plan and review” video conference calls via Microsoft Teams ensured that the entire process was completed without requiring anyone to travel to the facility.

Offline Training supported by digital twins and virtual reality

For some time, GEA has been looking to improve its training program and make it less dependent on the availability of physical equipment. VR training tools can now be used that show operators how to (dis)assemble and operate machinery even before it’s installed onsite or when giving demonstrations in person is problematical. A digital twin of the physical equipment allows realistic equipment handling and user training in terms of operating, cleaning and maintaining the plant. Plus, it can all be done in parallel to the build of the actual machinery and helps customers to prepare their staff remotely in their own premises before the physical plant arrives on site.  

Process modeling and equipment simulations

Digital modeling provides a rapid, low-cost solution to traditional research programs based on the physical testing of equipment. Using tools such as Computation Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and Discrete Element Methods (DEM), high fidelity models of GEA’s research and manufacturing equipment have been developed, tested and compared with traditional test programs. These have been applied to both our batch and continuous platforms and the results show that the digital twins accurately mimic the process performance of physical equipment. This provides a host of benefits to clients as an enabler of process optimization by reducing API use, experimentation time and the number of physical tests required.

In addition, the digital models allow for the aggressive and risk-free investigation of process boundaries. Aspects that would not easily be explored without extensive test programs such as mechanical stresses, thermodynamics, geometry and material characteristics can be assessed with ease. This results in a far more robust identification of the process design space, giving our customers more confidence in the stability of the product. By using digital twins, process performance can be simulated prior to running the equipment, reducing the risk of material waste and process failures. Plus, digital twins can be used at any time, at any location, require no handling of potentially potent APIs and no direct access to the physical equipment.

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