Plant & Works Engineering
Smart condition monitoring
Published:  15 August, 2017

As pharmaceutical manufacturers look to boost productivity and minimise downtime, frequently now with the goal of moving from batch production to continuous operation, Neal Welch, life science sales manager, Automation Systems Division at Mitsubishi Electric, highlights the importance of smart condition monitoring technologies.

As a tightly regulated sector with huge financial incentives to keep production lines running, manufacturers in the pharmaceutical industry typically experience less unplanned downtime than those in other sectors. Indeed, pharmaceutical manufacturers as a whole can point to fewer hours of unscheduled downtime than the equally high value automotive industry, and fewer also than the similarly regulated food and beverage sector.

This has been the case for some time, surveys conducted as long ago as 2004 by downtime expert Don Fitchett highlighted not only this push for manufacturing excellence within pharmaceuticals, but also pointed out how extensively companies were tracking their downtime, with standardised metrics in place to report it. This was hardly surprising given that almost 90% of them cited that downtime was either extremely or very important.

However, monitoring unplanned downtime is not the same as preventing it. And the component failures or bottlenecks that are prime causes of downtime can also impact on production line performance and on product quality. Combined with availability, these three key performance indicators are at the heart of measuring Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), as defined by the simple formula:

OEE = availability x performance x quality

Fast forward then, to today, and statistics highlight an average OEE score within the pharmaceutical sector of 60-70%, some way short of the score of 85% that is generally considered as world class. So while the pharmaceutical sector is ahead of the curve in acknowledging and tracking its downtime, it would appear it is not yet truly on top of maximising availability and boosting line performance.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are acutely aware that they need to increase machine availability and reduce unscheduled downtime in order to respond to global competition and minimise costs. But the traditional techniques for helping to predict downtime in order to manage maintenance and to help maximise reliable production have typically been either expensive – such as using out-sourcing experts to analyse machinery and interpret the results of complex algorithms – or highly subjective, relying on the experience of in-house engineers who are intimate with production lines and can ‘hear’ or ‘feel’ impending component failures.

The move to continuous production, from batch production is another trend in pharma manufacturing that is also creating an environment where production systems are even less tolerant of breakdowns or equipment variability. Traditionally a drug would be manufactured in stages, with lab tests carried out at each stage to confirm the attributes of the compound in production. Test regulations now however allow for real-time testing to be carried out on-machine during a continuous production process. So when the production process doesn’t stop, then reliability must be 100%.

Condition monitoring developments

In recent years, condition monitoring technologies have become mainstream – components that could be easily retrofitted to motors and rotating machinery to detect impending problems. From the outset, these opened up new possibilities for preventative maintenance, ensuring that components could be detected as nearing the end of their working lives and swapped out during scheduled maintenance. No longer would manufacturers be caught unawares by catastrophic failure. No longer would there be the problems of huge losses in productivity caused by downtime of a prime asset, with lost productivity running into perhaps tens of thousands of pounds, not to mention the emergency repair rates.

Today, though, we can go even further, with new generations of ‘smart’ technologies opening up the possibility not simply of preventative maintenance within pharmaceutical production, but of predictive maintenance. Key developments in sensor technology enable the continuous monitoring of many more machine parameters, cost-effectively, from large prime movers right down to smaller systems.


The Smart Condition Monitoring (SCM) solution from Mitsubishi Electric provides an integrated approach to monitoring the condition of individual assets, and enables a holistic approach to be taken to monitoring the asset health of the whole plant. These SCM systems can be operated continuously and can be relied upon to give a simple but effective warning prior to significant failure.

The ‘smart’ capability of the system and sensors comes from a combination of local, on-machine warnings – perhaps using the familiar traffic light system – and through having information from multiple sensors transferred over the plant network to PLCs and then on to HMIs, PCs or mobile devices for in-depth monitoring, advanced warning and more detailed analysis.

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