The term ‘continuous manufacturing’ doesn’t sound particularly efficient or environmentally friendly. You’d think switching something off once in a while would be the best way to be greener.
We are advancing our manufacturing through the introduction of new technologies and innovations that will help deliver higher quality medicines more effectively to patients. One allows medicines to be made cheaper, faster, and with a smaller impact on the environment.
In some processes it reduces water use by 83% and solvent use by 42%, leading to a 52% reduction in manufacturing carbon footprint. By running machines 24 hours a day, we have found that waste can be dramatically reduced. Subsequently, manufacturing in this way will also help minimise the size of our factories, and dramatically reduce the energy consumed to make every batch of life saving medicines or consumer healthcare products.
We call this continuous manufacturing and it is making a significant contribution to meeting our ambitious targets to reduce GSK’s carbon footprint across our entire ‘value chain’; ie from the sourcing and manufacture of raw materials, and how we run our labs and factories, right through to the use and disposal of our products by patients and consumers.
Technology delivers more with less
What were we doing before? In the Pharmaceutical industry, the traditional method has been to use large-scale industrial processes - involving very large process plants - to manufacture an active ingredient in batches of up to 1000 kilograms at a time.
In the traditional process, the main piece of machinery is the batch reactor. This is where the synthesis of the active ingredient occurs. Typically, we would use a reactor of about 4000 litres, and after each batch is produced, the reactor, which weighs around five tonnes, would need to be cooled, cleaned and recharged – using up time and energy and producing waste.
With continuous manufacturing, less is more! The reactor used in continuous manufacturing is much smaller but as it works more quickly, using a process based on flow, it is a much more efficient process. In a continuous manufacturing system the chemicals are pumped continuously into a small channel or tube, typically a few millimetres in diameter. This is designed to precisely control the chemistry so that by the time it leaves the tube, the product is fully made, so no time is lost heating, cooling and discharging. And can you believe that through continued innovation, we currently have a prototype test reactor which has been reduced to the size of a pen? By using this approach, tiny flows of 1 to 200ml per minute (to put that into perspective, 1ml/min is a few tear drops once a minute) can be as productive as a 4000 litre traditional reactor if operated 24 hours a day for 300 days a year.
GSK has invested over $50 million to applying continuous technology in Singapore on one of its key active pharmaceutical ingredients used to treat respiratory conditions. With the new technology, a plant of only about 100 square meters is required, compared to the 900-square-meter facilities needed for current methods. Head of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies at GSK, Mark Buswell, leads the multi-disciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and Technology leaders introducing new technologies into GSK. He commented: “Our long-term manufacturing technology strategy is setting the course for how we will produce our medicines in a more innovative, accessible, affordable and sustainable manner in the years to come. Our ambition is to be a world class supply organisation where manufacturing serves as a core competitive advantage. Continuous manufacturing technologies are one part of our roadmap to more sustainable manufacturing.”