IIoT in the Pharmaceutical Industry

What could the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) achieve for the pharmaceutical Industry? Everactive is working with one of the world’s top five drugmakers to find out.

Context: Data Famine to Data Feast

Speaking about the medical device and pharmaceutical industry in a recent interview with Goldman Sachs, Medtronics COO Geoff Martha noted that, “The amount of data that you have is, I believe, the rate limiter on our innovation”

The rate limiter on data has, in turn, been power. Technologists and pundits have been forecasting a “4th Industrial Revolution” for at least a decade, but this much heralded leap in human potential relies on the availability of data produced by ubiquitous sensors – the internet of things (IoT). Thus far, it has not been possible to deploy sensors at scale due to a simple but critical issue: fuel. Before Everactive, the only way to power a network of hundreds or thousands of far-flung sensors was with batteries. But batteries pose insurmountable problems in terms of maintenance and endurance.

Everactive dispenses with this whole dynamic by offering ultra-low-power sensors that fuel themselves through energy harvested from their environments. These sensors are tough and resilient in a way that batteries are not, which also allows them to be used in industrial contexts. Through this technology, IoT is now within reach for the pharmaceutical industry. So what are they doing with it?

Steam: the “Secret Ingredient” in Pharmaceuticals 

When people think about medical innovation, they think of new surgical techniques or life-saving drugs. They don’t often think of factories. But one of the many lessons of COVID has been that when supply chains falter or when demand exceeds supply for a critical treatment, even the most brilliant research in the world cannot put life-saving interventions in the hands of patients and doctors.

One of the critical components of pharmaceutical manufacturing is steam. In fact, there are few manufacturing processes today that do not rely upon steam to provide an end product. In a pharma setting, steam is essential in reaching the extremely high standards of cleanliness to which drug production is naturally subject. 

Pharmaceutical Clean Room
A view from outside a pharmaceutical clean room.

Steam is used to heat “water for injections” or WFI, the ultra-pure H2O that goes into medicines like pills and vaccines. Likewise, steam is used to maintain the hygiene of “clean rooms” in which drugs are made. And, of course, steam provides general heating and cooling to the factories.

When something goes wrong in a factory’s steam system, the consequences can be grave. For example, before switching to continuous monitoring with Everactive, one of the firm’s pharmaceutical clients discovered that they had missed a steam trap malfunction. That fault in their system had been silently compromising the sterility of a clean room for months. The firm was forced to destroy all of the inventory which had passed through that facility, creating the risk of a bottleneck in shipping critical medicines.

Everywhere and All the Time

Until recently, a Fortune 100 global pharmaceutical company with production facilities in Central Virginia [name withheld to protect proprietary innovation] relied on twice-a-year manual inspections of all its steam traps. Men and women with physical clipboards would go from trap to trap, checking for issues. 

Checking Steam Traps Manually
A sight familiar to plant reliability experts: manual steam trap inspection. Expensive, tedious, and unreliable, there has been no better alternative until now.

The process was plainly unsatisfactory: problems could linger for months between inspections, intermittent malfunctions were easily missed, and getting human inspectors into clean rooms was costly and complex. So the firm tried a battery-powered remote monitoring solution, but that was even worse, delivering little aside from a trail of dead batteries.

Having been founded at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville, Everactive first approached the pharmaceutical plant with its batteryless, wireless sensors years ago. Intrigued, the manufacturer told Everactive – then still called PsiKick – to come back when they had more proof of concept.

Sure enough, Everactive returned in 2018 with more evidence and even better software for turning data into insights. The plant agreed to pilot Everactive’s solution on the 2% of its steam traps that were hardest to monitor. After the success of those initial trials, the plant soon expanded implementation to many more locations and traps.

For this customer, the advantages have been manifold. Everactive delivers steam trap insights second-by-second, rather than once every six months, and does so conveniently, with intelligent notifications and easy to navigate mobile and desktop interfaces.

“I was able to get on my phone real quick and read what the condensate temperature was, so we could determine if there was live steam going into [the trap],” notes the plant’s Facilities Engineer. “[That was] pretty neat.”

Everactive’s sensors and networking have also proven resilient to the harsh environments of an industrial setting. “Initially, I had questions about data transmission: the ability to go from sensors to collectors,” adds the Facilities Engineer, “Especially with ones outside. These things strapped to a hot pipe in the sun – are they really going to work?” But after nearly three years, the plant’s Eversensors are still going strong. 

The Future of IIoT in Pharmaceuticals

Now that we know that batteryless IIoT technology can work for pharmaceutical manufacturing, what’s the future?

“At least at [my company],” explains Everactive’s global pharmaceutical client, “We are slow to embrace new technology. But once it gets proven, we kind of go all in on it. We’re in the ‘slow-to-embrace phase’ now, but we won’t be here forever.”

As in other highly regulated industries, drug companies don’t “move fast and break things” – to borrow the mantra of some Silicon Valley startups – because those risks could endanger consumer health. However, the sector has a strong tradition of deploying proven innovation at scale.

At the present moment, this top drug company is laser-focused on sustainability: “The ultimate thing is carbon reduction,” says the Central Virginia Facilities Engineer. “Trying to reduce CO2 emissions. Whether we produce them on-site or we’re buying electricity, there are going to be emissions somehow. Right now, we’re expanding, but the company still wants us to lower our output.”

Reducing Emissions through plant maintenance
The realm in which IIoT may have the biggest impact on pharmaceuticals is in reducing emissions.

Every pound of steam represents an investment of carbon. While catastrophic mechanical failures seize more attention, energy efficiency is the realm where IIoT will prove its value on an everyday basis for pharmaceutical companies. While detecting a leak sooner and fixing broken equipment faster may not seem like a big deal for climate change, all that incremental energy saving adds up to tremendous impact 

Let’s put it this way: if Everactive never sold another sensor, its Steam Trap Monitoring product alone would reduce emissions by 44 thousand tons of CO2 annually. That is the CO2 reduction equivalent of removing 8,655 passenger cars from the road or “turning off” 15,925 US homes for an entire year. And Everactive is just getting started. Since shipping its first product in 2019, Everactive has generated over 1 billion data points using less energy than it takes to brew 4 cups of coffee. 

As the pharmaceutical industry turns to self-powered IIoT sensing on a massive scale, it will consume exponentially more data. But that new insight into the physical world of plants – powering the efficient and timely delivery of life-saving drugs – actually comes with a lighter footprint than the era of manual inspections that we’ve lived in up until now. The future of pharma is almost here – and it’s looking bright.