Meeting unprecedented demand will require a step-change in life sciences

At a time when we are deliberating over the future of the global economy and adapting to the new normal, there is a trend that remains constant in life sciences; the need for faster delivery of research & development (R&D), manufacturing facilities and pharmaceuticals.

Greater expectations of healthier, longer, fuller lives in high, middle and lower-income countries have been supported by medical advances to fuel a global industry. Add to this the immediate need to research and fight COVID-19 and the industry is primed for investment.

For the UK with its existing life science base, this provides a tantalising opportunity to catalyse growth. However, the global market is competitive. Before the current crisis, the UK industry acknowledged concern regarding our reliance on the European life science sector and what this would mean after Brexit, as well as dependence on China and India for both treatments and the manufacturing capabilities needed to bring them to market.

The impact of the pandemic must be to focus minds on the future of the sector in the UK, driving a step-change in how we conceive, deliver and support the industry.

Continuous improvement must be at the forefront of this strategy, with five key enablers for meeting demand faster:

1. A connected UK life science sector with a shared vision

Key to achieving this step-change is the collaboration between the universities, sector pioneers and UK government, with these relationships becoming more formal in response to COVID-19.

Often, the debate around the need to protect and capitalise on existing life sciences expertise focuses on the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Here the strong connectivity with global universities has established clusters of health and pharmaceutical R&D which has supported these institutions’ pivotal role in the fight against the coronavirus.

However, in reality this is just one cluster. Less heralded in the media is the North East – which produces 33 percent of the UK’s GDP in pharmaceutical manufacturing – or the North West which hosts leading facilities in vaccine manufacturing.

Yorkshire is home to a major cluster of orthopaedic and surgical companies, anchored around the Universities of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. The devolved nations' hubs in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales also contribute billions to the UK economy.

Seen collectively, these hubs offer a launchpad for the UK to compete on a global scale. The work of the UK2070 Commission in tackling regional inequality, which we have backed, has proposed new ‘Networks of Excellence’ in regional R&D which match the Golden Triangle.

These networks can improve connectivity and maximise opportunities in linked industries within the UK – from manufacturing and logistics to exports and trade. It’s imperative that we now see this backed by Government as part of its ‘levelling up agenda’ for the economic recovery.

2. Asset management and optimisation with flexibility

The next enabler is to support flexibility, which is so essential to the creation of life science assets. As COVID-19 has demonstrated, demands within the industry can shift quickly and the real estate model needs to remain just as agile as the R&D.

As lead times for construction are typically too slow to respond to an emerging need, the UK sector needs to plan ahead.

Most importantly, this means developing assets in anticipation of requirements. In Europe, we are working with a pharmaceutical major at the moment to prepare a significant new vaccine production facility. Although the requirement has been identified by the client for the production capacity, the nature of the vaccines that will be produced there needs to remain flexible.

The emphasis for the client is preparing a state-of-the-art facility which has the agility to bring a range of different products to market.

At the same time, we need to look at how we can repurpose existing assets to maximise efficiency. Globally, we have seen a number of existing facilities that have been enhanced and converted to next-generation centres which bring together R&D and manufacturing teams.

This provides the ability to research potential new targets and seamlessly manufacture them into new medicines. Combined with using the same equipment, data and analytics, efficiencies can be realised that significantly reduce the overall time to produce a new medicine.

3. Control and predictability in investments

When it comes to construction costs, this sector has a different dynamic compared to most other industries. Maintaining cost efficiency is, of course, important and the sector is far from immune to the economic shocks we are seeing at the moment – where over the counter medical sales and GP administered products, for example, are seeing a major fall.

However, the overriding consideration is not keeping investment costs low, but making sure they are predictable and carefully controlled.

Guaranteed performance of major construction programmes linked to such investment is key, with the ability to predict cost and schedule outturn earlier.

Access to sector-relevant data and expertise within the UK is fundamental to the sector setting realistic baselines to control and measure performance against.

4. Best practice construction techniques to enable quicker delivery

Adopting and developing a shift in mentality will be critical to expanding the UK’s life science industry. Although there are best practice examples, we are still seeing a traditional approach to major programme and project delivery.

Embedding proven advances in construction within the sector can facilitate quick wins, in particular through:

  • Excellence in design for manufacturing and offsite construction. Ensuring speed to market through efficient construction offsite must be a priority for the sector. While we have seen positive steps in offsite manufacturing of cleanroom facilities and pharmaceutical process equipment, more work is still to be done.
  • Lean practices within an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) environment. The sector is familiar with the IPD concept and has realised some improvements specific to project level delivery. However, the step change is being able to use this as a framework – a repeatable approach, delivering multiple projects in a standardised way alongside long-term partners. This model replaces the dominance of price as the overriding supply chain metric with more collaborative, value-driven relationships in which goals and rewards are shared.
  • Effective use of building information modelling (BIM) technology. BIM-facilitated clash detection not only improves the ability to get it right first time and increase productivity but also enables intelligent discussion around how to deliver with reduced numbers on-site given COVID-19.
  • Efficient progress measurement and valuation of works. More than ever, tools like Holobuilder and Reconstruct are crucial in monitoring progress and reviewing quality, reducing time on site while creating a digital record of progress.

5. Supporting digital advancements to achieve efficiency

A key enabler for the sector to improve speed to market is Industry 4.0, the transformation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practises combined with the latest digital technologies, data analysis and skillsets.

Embedding Industry 4.0 will facilitate a step-change within the life sciences sector – it could even reshape the global economy.

The life science sector’s own contribution to the global ambition – Pharma 4.0 – is already taking shape and continues to be a core theme within International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering events.

The main consideration for the sector is how new tools can be adopted with consideration for the specialist regulations of the good manufacturing process (GMP) environment, and how we establish the specialist skills needed to do so.

The UK can support this step change for the sector by working with universities and global majors now to understand and address the skills gap. As Pharma 4.0 develops we will see more connected objects and new enabling technologies that will transform manufacturing in the sector.

Most obviously, majors in the sector will need to train and hire specialised individuals to manage huge amounts of data from connected objects on the plant floor. However, these broader skillsets will also be needed in the supply chain too.

Architectural and engineering design firms will need people who are versed in technological advancements and can design adaptive, connected, compliant and flexible facilities.

Building and general contracting firms will in turn then require skills in digital and technology so they can construct and commission these complex and highly automated smart facilities.