Are Biotech Startups Ready for Augmented Reality?

19/05/2021 - 8 minutes

Augmented reality is starting to become a part of the manufacturing process of pharma and biotech companies. Paul Haimes, Vice President of Engineering at PTC, discusses the benefits and challenges to implementing this technology across the biotech industry.

Augmented reality (AR) is increasingly being used to maintain and optimize biomanufacturing processes, which can bring economic benefits for biotech and pharma companies long term. In addition, the technology can provide remote work and knowledge-sharing options, which have proven particularly relevant in pandemic times. However, especially for small to medium-sized life science companies, a better understanding of the technology’s benefits and how to apply it is still lacking. 

“You need to examine: how does it save you money or make you money; does it increase sales; does it create a better working environment; will it solve a production bottleneck? These scenarios must be explored before you press the button on AR,” says Paul Haimes.

Paul Haimes is the Vice President of Engineering for PTC, a company that develops digital solutions for manufacturing, in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. With over 20 years of product development experience, one of his areas of expertise covers smart connected products, the internet of things, and AR.

Why aren’t we seeing more small biotech companies embrace AR? Is this mainly due to high costs of entry?

It’s not the high cost of entry, as hardware and software are now within the reach of small- to medium-sized businesses. There is, however, a lack of understanding of the use cases and what value they may actually bring.  

A great example of this would be the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, which was pulled together to create a supply chain capable of producing over 13,000 ventilators for the UK. They used PTC’s AR technology and Microsoft’s smart glasses, HoloLens, to capture the crucial assembly steps and processes involved in building rapidly manufactured ventilator systems. 

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This was used to create a virtual assembly and test guide and relayed, through wearable equipment or smart devices such as phone or tablet, to the factories of consortium partners that traditionally do not make ventilators. 

Protecting all the workers involved in the project was of paramount importance to the consortium. This is where AR was ideal for removing a lot of the dangers, by virtually placing a ventilator expert into a partner factory – thus reducing the risk of the virus spreading.

This resoundingly proved the benefits of what AR can deliver, in terms of capturing process knowledge and redeploying it elsewhere to less experienced operators. It was ‘life and death’ in this instance, but on a shop floor, it could also be process-critical.

The ability to connect the engineer in the field with the expert in the factory is very relevant in the small to medium-sized business space, as employees often wear more than one hat and there is a need for the roles to be more flexible and less specialist.  

Does AR implementation require a big investment of time? 

The perception is that you do, but the reality is very different.  In the early days of AR, a coding skill was required to build and adapt your experience. Today, companies like PTC have worked hard to democratise AR to bring it within the reach of the engineer and product development professional.

Now, AR experiences, such as a design review in a shared AR environment or work instructions on the shop floor, can be created very quickly. The additional coding layer is not required, and the technology is accessible and usable by the mainstream. 

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How can a company evaluate if this technology will improve its manufacturing process?

As previously mentioned, it’s important for any company to understand the benefits it can get from implementing the technology and how it unlocks value within the business, some of which may not initially be viewed as the key driver.

My recommendation is that even the most basic form of value analysis needs to be done, and that value needs to be aligned to a strategic initiative within the company. Making sure you have that link back to the overarching aim is fundamental. Once you achieve that, the technology is the enabling layer that will scale to deliver the improved performance.

For any biotech company looking to understand the relevance of 4.0 and AR technologies, my advice would be to visit a facility like the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) in Dublin, Ireland. These state-of-the-art hubs showcase an environment that is looking at taking leading technologies and providing a viewpoint on how they work – giving visitors the ability to understand the use case and how they look at them in the context of their own business.

What are the main applications for AR in biotech? Which will we see in the future?

Common use cases that we have discussed to date include remote assistance and helping protect skills that could be lost with an ageing workforce. One of the areas we see a lot of biotech companies investing in is production line changeovers and creating the ability to repeatedly and consistently move product from one line to another – often a very complicated task in a complex environment.

Companies are increasingly using AR to reduce the time it takes to achieve this and enhance the accuracy of the end result, especially when users are working across a number of different lines and locations. Delivering the instruction at the ‘point of use’ is important as it relates directly to those changeover scenarios.

One of PTC’s large pharma customers is currently using AR for this exact purpose, ensuring efficient monitoring of the production process and line maintenance – both contributing to increased manufacturing and productivity levels.

In terms of where we are going in the future, spatial capabilities will give us the ability to do scanning and tracking within the actual view that the device is looking at – an important area of development for this technology.

Spatial computing and how we use AR to improve human performance is a major priority area for PTC. Understanding how humans interact with machinery and equipment could inform a whole host of productivity improvements going forward.

How can instant remote connection with experts change how companies work together?

It certainly creates different ways of working. Within small to medium-sized businesses, where people have wider roles than a more specialist focus, the ability to be able to connect easily and quickly with people that need your experience is essential. 

For me that is a better way of working. It accelerates problem resolutions and helps improve customer satisfaction. It also potentially opens up the option for customers to do their own service work.  

For example, the diagnostics developer Sysmex, which previously sent people on site to do certain service procedures, has created an AR experience that allows the owner to do the service themselves.

What role does AR play in the shift towards industry 4.0 manufacturing? 

When a maintenance engineer uses AR as the interface for a piece of equipment, you are able to embed hundreds of years’ worth of IP and knowledge and put it at their fingertips. Even the most inexperienced of workers are suddenly transformed into experienced professionals.

I think that is the most important area where AR makes a difference. It’s providing info where it is required and in a variety of different formats, whether that be a PDF document of assembly or a sequence overlaid on the physical equipment that you are looking at. It even has the ability to understand where you have worked to and which step in the process is next.

A lot of what industry 4.0 is about is gathering information off the equipment, but that information is only truly valuable to the business if people are able to act on it and make decisions more effectively than they would have done in the past. 

What will be the key milestones to broaden AR adoption?

The software development will continue at pace, but there are two areas from an AR perspective where improvements will help support mass adoption. These are:

1. Wearables or hardware. The ability to have something with the capability of the HoloLens but packaged up in a smaller form. Providers such as Microsoft are constantly looking at ways to reduce the size and weight of the wearable. The company that gets there first will drive a step-change in our ability to consume AR data with a binocular view.

2. Connectivity and the advancement of 5G and private networks. In lots of factory environments, certainly within biotech and pharma, there are health and safety protocols that require ATEX-certified equipment and connectivity on the shop floor. Process plants and equipment tend to make an excellent ‘Faraday cage’ making it difficult to deliver a reliable signal. Through the expansion of 5G and private networks, the ability to interact quickly and easily with AR will become viable and make a huge difference to its expansion.

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