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‘Autotech meets Biotech’ – current status and outlook

Intensive cooperation between the engineering-driven sectors and the biotechnology sector is a prerequisite for driving forward automation in the field of biotechnology. The Engineering – Life Sciences – Automation (ELSA) cluster initiative of BioRegio STERN Management GmbH aims to promote cross-industry cooperation. A study entitled ‘Biotech meets Autotech’, which was carried out as part of the ELSA project, provides insights into the current status of cooperation and the potential offered by closer collaboration.

The name says it all: ELSA stands for ”Engineering - Life Sciences - Automation" and is a cluster initiative of BioRegio STERN Management GmbH with the specific aim of driving forward the cooperation between the engineering, life sciences and automation industries with the objective of advancing automation in the biotechnology field and providing regional companies with a competitive advantage in future global markets. Prior to ELSA, some companies had already shown that collaboration can be highly successful. Curetis AG is one such company. A specialist in molecular diagnostics, the company joined forces with engineering-driven companies in order to develop an automated production site for the mass production of cartridges used for DNA analysis. BioRegio STERN Management GmbH supported the company in the search for a suitable cooperation partner for the cartridge project.

“Curetis was looking for partners who were able to manufacture the equipment for the diagnostic system and we helped to put the company into contact with potential partners,” said Dr. Kathrin Ballesteros from BioRegio STERN Management GmbH who is in charge of the ELSA project. BioRegio’s experience with Curetis and the large number of talks with other life sciences companies that are about to set up large-scale or even mass production lines, showed that there was huge demand for cooperation. “This led to the ELSA initiative because we wanted to do something on the larger scale, rather than just supporting the odd company in its search for a collaboration partner,” Ballesteros says. The cluster initiative was launched in September 2011 and is supported by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Finances and Economic Affairs with funds totalling 200,000 euros from the European Regional Development Fund. Cooperation partners include: the Mechatronics Cluster, the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and Automation (IPA), the Medical Valley Hechingen competence network and Wirtschaftsförderung Region Stuttgart GmbH (WRS). “These organisations helped us to develop contacts and organise events. The partners also contributed to the design of the ELSA study and brought us into contact with people and companies wishing to participate,” said Ballesteros.

Automation – still sporadic, but maybe soon a mass phenomenon?

The ELSA study shows that the engineering and biotech sectors are extremely interested in cooperative projects that promote automation in the life sciences; many companies and projects seem to be in the starting block. © Fotolia

It is not just a matter of chance that the ELSA initiative was launched in the STERN BioRegion; after all, the region is home to around 1,000 engineering-driven companies and around 100 biotech companies, which is a relatively large number considering that the biotech sector is still rather young. Of course, “young” is relative, as Ballesteros explains: “The biotechnology sector has made considerable progress over the past years. The industry is no longer exclusively characterised by start-ups, but also has fairly mature companies that are increasingly demanding automated processes.” However, in order to promote cross-industry cooperation, information needs to be collected to find out how many companies are already working together and on which issues. BioRegio STERN therefore launched the ‘Autotech meets Biotech’ study as part of the ELSA project in autumn 2012. A total of 131 life sciences and engineering and automation companies participated in the study.

In addition to life sciences companies, the participants were also grouped into engineering and automation, for practical reasons, as Simone Schell, trainee in the ELSA management group, explains. “The classical mechanical engineering sector does not necessarily include the fields of electrical and control technology. And the control aspect tends to relate to automation. On the other hand, engineers plan and design machines, plants and production lines, but they do not necessarily build them. In addition, engineering has much in common with the development of prototypes used in the mechanical and systems engineering sectors.” 57 percent of the companies that participated in the study are active in the field of engineering and automation, and 43 in the life sciences.

Study reveals current status and required scope of action

The study shows what motivates life sciences companies to automate processes. “Feedback from the companies shows that the need for standardised production and service conditions is a major reason why companies want to implement automation solutions,” said Ballesteros. Schell added: “Product and service quality, validation and standardised production conditions are crucial for products destined for human application, to name but one example. Measurements need to be produced to document progress and capacity for continuous improvement. Although this method of validating service and process quality works, it is nevertheless time-consuming.” And this is a major problem. The growing market requires increasing unit quantities. “At some stage, this method becomes too costly. The solution lies in the automation of production methods; this helps define standard and transparent production conditions, which is crucial for the market approval of products. In addition, automation means cost-efficiency,” said Ballesteros. Other reasons why companies are increasingly calling for automation solutions include occupational safety issues (employees need to be protected against hazardous substances, and also against noise) and working hours. “Shift work can be rather stressful, and it is also expensive. In contrast, an automated system can be operated continuously with limited personnel costs,” Schell says. 

The field of biotechnology benefits enormously from automated processes which enable the parallelisation of many steps, thereby considerably accelerating numerous processes. © Fotolia

Engineering-driven companies and companies in the life sciences industry have similar opinions on how automation solutions can be implemented. They attach great importance to flexible collaboration, the ability to work together in projects without having to commit to long-term and fixed partnerships in the form of joint ventures, for example. The companies also have similar thoughts with regard to the factors that impede or promote collaboration. The companies surveyed identified the different product development approaches used by the engineering-driven and the life sciences companies as a major obstacle. Despite this huge potential, cooperation between engineers and life sciences experts also throws up some challenges. The automation companies need to deal with the fact that working with living cells and perishable materials requires innovative automation solutions that are adapted to living matter. And in this case, it would be highly advantageous if developers were aware of the special requirements right from the start. “We would like to create a greater awareness of these challenges in the biotech sector. In general, it would be highly advantageous for both partners to be familiar with the requirements of the other partner and about the different ways of working in general,” Ballesteros says.

The will to cooperate is clear

Under the ELSA project, informational events and workshops are being carried out to break down communication barriers and identify the requirements for successful cooperation between the participating industries. Engineering and automation companies learn about the special requirements of biotech companies and presentations are given on biotech companies that have successfully implemented automation solutions. Seminars and workshops in which biotech companies present their requirements and engineering and automation companies explain what their skills are will also be offered. The ELSA team hopes that these events will provide the representatives of both industries with opportunities to initiate specific cooperation projects aimed at developing innovative automation solutions targeted to the specific requirements of the life sciences industry.

The events held to present the outcome of the ‘Autotech meets Biotech’ study generated a great deal of interest: the first event, which was held in the Stuttgart Television Tower, was booked out so quickly that a second presentation was held on the Stuttgart Trade Fair premises. The two events attracted up to 130 guests from the two sectors, which, for a regional event, counts as a great success. The results of the study are available elsewhere in the form of a brochure summary (in German) that can be obtained free of charge from BioRegio STERN Management GmbH or downloaded from the Internet (see logo in the top-right hand corner).

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The presentation of the ELSA study in the Stuttgart Televesion Tower attracted such a lot of interest that a second meeting had to be arranged. The speakers were (from left to right): Dr. Kathrin Ballesteros Katemann, BioRegio STERN Management GmbH, Dr. Martin Winter, Cetics Healthcare Technologies GmbH, Simone Schell, BioRegio STERN Management GmbH, Barbara Hoffbauer, Kepos GmbH, Andreas Traube, Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and Automation, Sabrina Lamberth, Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO, Günther Leßnerkraus, Head of Department in the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Finances and Economic Affairs © BioRegio STERN

Future vision: re-thinking automation

Asked about the future of cooperation in terms of automation, Ballesteros says that she believes that it will be in some way linked to specialisation: “I think there will be special automation companies with a firm life sciences customer base. This will enable engineering companies to offer economical automation solutions. I believe that a handful of companies that can serve as contacts for the biotech sector will emerge.” Ballesteros believes that major changes will occur in the way life sciences products are manufactured. For example, she expects that life sciences companies will eventually no longer be required to perform production in special cleanrooms.

“I think that developers will come up with completely new possibilities, for example miniaturised cleanrooms that can be integrated into production lines, and cell cultures will no longer need to be placed into special incubators; instead, climate chambers will be somehow designed around the devices of a production line,” says Ballesteros who believes that automation in the life sciences will not move in the direction of greater speed, but towards the parallelisation of processes. “The reason I think this will be the case is because many compounds used in the biotech sector poorly tolerate accelerated processes. In addition, the biotech sector generally produces high-quality products, which cost more than just a few cents. In my opinion, the target is to produce a few products a month, which will still cost several thousand euros a piece.” 

Further information:
BioRegio STERN Management GmbH
Dr. Kathrin Ballesteros
Simone Schell
Friedrichstraße 10
70174 Stuttgart
Tel.: +49 (0)711 870354­0
E-mail:elsa(at)bioregio-stern.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/autotech-meets-biotech-current-status-and-outlook