Festo is a supplier of components and subsystems for automated, cost-efficient bioproduction. Headquartered in the Swabian city of Denkendorf, Festo supplies its biotech and pharma customers all over the world with automation solutions.
Festo AG & Co. KG is a leading provider of factory automation and process automation. The company has been involved in and contributed to shaping the development of such automation solutions ever since its foundation in 1925. Festo markets electrical and pneumatic drive technology, valves, sensors and other automation components as well as complete control units. Moreover, when industrial bioproduction involving living microorganisms was gaining in importance at the start of the millennium, Festo also started tapping into this market. Biotechnology and pharma have since become an independent industry segment in the company’s process automation products and services portfolio.
Thomas Schulz, head of Industry Segment and Key Account Management Biotech/Pharma explains what this means: “We have specific sales and development teams who keep a very close eye on how this industry segment develops and take action accordingly. At Festo, we have a specific right of way rule which gives priority to the biotech/pharma segment in the event of bottlenecks in this segment.” Schulz manages the company’s global activities in bioproduction of medical drugs and their production in quantities of ten to several hundred litres.
Schulz oversees all activities with the exception of the laboratory automation industry segment, which is headed up by Peter Jaschke. The reason for the division is the different processes of the plants. “The two segments differ in their daily routine; in contrast to bioproduction, laboratory automation deals with extremely small quantities, which are nevertheless processed in a high-throughput manner,” Schulz explains.
Festo has put its laboratory automation skills to good use in the development of the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and Automation IPA’s Tissue Factory which develops human skin models that enable the animal-free testing of drugs and cosmetics.
The two areas have one thing in common, namely the fact that the production processes need to conform to high standards of cleanliness and sterility. That said, there are no big differences around the world. Schulz explains: “The GMP requirements for globally active companies – and most of our customers are globally active – are basically the same. Although there are still some regional differences, we have been seeing that Russia and China now attach greater importance to quality. Nowadays, nobody can afford to work under sloppy and dirty conditions.”
This applies to the entire production chain that Festo supplies with components. “The automation of valve functions is currently our main business. Depending on size, production plants use around 500 to 10,000 process valves to control the supply of liquid and gaseous media,” Schulz explains. The challenge is to match and control all the valves of a process chain in a specific order. Festo has developed “valve terminals” for this purpose. Valve terminals combine several valves on one terminal and enable the precise configuration and centralised control of the valves. “This technology is currently the most frequently used and we provide our clients with any part they need, including complete control cabinets,” Schulz says.
The control programmes are the responsibility of the company’s clients in the machinery and plant manufacturing industry. “Although the valve terminals always consist of the same basic modules, different interfaces might be required as each control software environment has its own requirements,” Schulz says. Festo has frequent contact with end-users: “We work with plant manufacturers and thus help end-users to find a solution as early as the engineering phase or when factory acceptance tests (FATs) are performed before the delivered equipment is installed.”
In general, Schulz sees a clear trend in this sector towards multipurpose facilities. And Schulz and his team are watching this market very closely. While drugs like insulin are produced with bacteria in huge fermenters, there is a growing number of drugs of which smaller quantities are required. This increasingly means that several drugs are produced in one and the same plant. This is associated with special challenges, in particular with regard to traceability and cleaning, as contaminations with preceding products need to be avoided at all costs. “The plants need to be flexible as well as highly automated. We therefore need to adjust our components to such production plants,” Schulz says.
He sees another important future trend in the single use of biofermenters, plastic bags contained in a kind of stainless steel bracket that provides the necessary support. “Single-use fermenters are already quite common for producing volumes of up to one cubic metre. We expect this trend to continue growing, especially as the use of such fermenters is being strongly promoted by some manufacturers,” Schulz says.
The advantages are obvious: single-use fermenters allow a much faster exchange of batches, which helps save time and hence also money. In addition, the use of single-use fermenters reduces the risk of cross-contaminations occurring. “Despite the disposal costs, the use of single-use fermenters is already worthwhile, in relation of course to the volume and number of batches that need to be exchanged,” Schulz says. The valve and sensor technology is tightly connected to the bags, while the control system remains the same as in conventional devices.
Both developments have huge potential for advancing and integrating personalised medicine. This is a research-intensive field that only handles small quantities, and therefore fits better into our laboratory automation segment. However, we are monitoring the ever-increasing demand in this field. At present, the industrial-scale bioproduction of cell therapeutics is still in its infancy and will remain a vision of the future for quite some time to come. It will therefore be quite a long time before personalised medicine arrives in industrial bioproduction,” Schulz believes.
He also believes that Asia and other emerging regions are currently the major markets for his industry segment: “That is where the greatest challenges lie. The proportion of new investments into ‘pharmerging markets’, i.e. emerging markets targeted by pharmaceutical companies, such as Russia, China and Turkey have more than doubled over the last twenty years, and we expect even greater growth,” Schulz says. He also believes that Germany is and will in the future remain one of Festo’s major markets. “This is not only down to the fact that Germany is our domestic market, but because it is home to an unusually large number of machinery and plant manufacturers, including many global players.”