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Forefront, a Unispace Life Sciences benchmarking report, reveals that sustainability, equipment upgrades, and digitalisation are among the biggest areas of focus for large pharmaceutical organisations. The research found that many companies, particularly in Ireland, are focused on sustainability targets, however high production demands and the skills gap are creating challenges for organisations to realise their near-term priorities.

More than 180 life science industry leaders in Ireland and around the world were surveyed for the Unispace report, with 12 in-depth interviews with blue-chip pharma companies and roundtable discussions at the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE) in Dublin and Orlando. Chaired by Cork-based Unispace Life Sciences Director of Sales & Strategy Aisling Crowley, the ‘Forefront’ report provides key insights on the use of Pharma 4.0, which sees a focus on integrating intelligent digital technologies into the manufacturing and industrial processes.

“Pharmaceutical companies are on the forefront of implementing technology and innovation to deliver life-saving drugs. Industry leaders are deeply committed to addressing challenges such as sustainability targets and the skills gap through greater investments, improved processes, and strategic planning,” said John O’Reilly,

CEO, Unispace Life Sciences. According to ‘Forefront’, in 2022, more than 29% of companies described themselves as either emerging or infancy when it comes to Pharma 4.0 initiatives. The most popular area of focus right now is new platforms for integration and business tools. 78% of those surveyed said that they had a Pharma 4.0 roadmap for the next five years, while 53% were currently on the roadmap.

Sustainability is high on the agenda, particularly for Irish-based life sciences companies, where the research found that organisations are committed to achieving greater sustainability. Companies are taking steps to deliver on their sustainability goals, with 56% of companies stating that they have now formalised these goals
and 25% are adding a sustainability role at corporate and site level to drive sustainability solutions forward.

‘Forefront’ also found that while pharmaceutical elegance and facility finish is driven by regulatory and compliance drivers, talent attraction and retention are also driving investment in facility design and modernisation. More than 80% of interviewees have recently or are currently upgrading and investing more in office/social spaces within their facilities to compete for talent across all sectors.

Within the report, a key theme to emerge was in addressing the skills gap, with as many as 85% of respondents choosing to upskill their current workforce instead of outsourcing to a third party to overcome these gaps. Respondents cited skills that will be critical in the next five years: MES engineering (60%), Data Science (57%), Data Management (57%). There is also an increased focus on machine learning, AI and deep learning skills.

Organisations are becoming more centralised when it comes to deploying key concepts such as pharma 4.0, AI, innovations and technologies, sustainability and digital tools. Global engineering and IT are becoming more and more seamless as they are so well integrated now.

With the pressure on to maintain production outputs, high equipment utilisation and demand is seen as a main cause for delaying equipment upgrades. Common reasons for replacing equipment were End of life (31%) and Production or Reliability risks (22%).

Equipment upgrades and replacements have been described by some respondents in ‘Forefront’ as one of the more challenging hidden issue in pharma. With increased demand and ever shorter speed-to-market needs, companies want to avoid equipment and facility ‘downtime’. Familiarity with existing technologies can contribute to a delay in upgrading to new technology.