Chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers incur about 30% of their costs on engineering activities, including operation, maintenance, technical support, design, modifications, and capital projects, says Ian D. Shott, a longtime engineering and business executive in the fine chemicals industry. Generally, all these activities are conducted in-house, but such a situation may not give the best value for money in engineering expenditure, he believes. Recently, Shott established Ian Shott Associates, a management consultancy and pharmaceutical services business based in the U.K. A major activity of the company will be to provide engineering services.
A strong case exists for providing more cost-effective services; better coverage for breakdown; stronger, faster, and cheaper support for minor projects and minor capital expenditures; and more effective statutory and preventive maintenance than what companies can do at the moment, Shott says. His group plans to establish an engineering capability that pharmaceutical and fine chemicals companies can draw upon for their engineering needs.
As a first step, one facility will be set up in northeastern England, where, according to Shott, a geographic concentration of potential clients exists, including Avecia, H. Lundbeck, Pfizer, Merck Sharpe & Dohme, Rhodia Pharma Solutions, and Sanofi-Synthélabo. "We'll be showing these companies that outsourcing their engineering requirements will cost them less," he says. "We're intending to employ a large, highly skilled team well qualified to deliver a high-performance service," he adds.
The facility also can help companies take advantage of the opportunity to differentiate through better engineering, Shott says. At present, manufacture of active pharmaceutical ingredients and other fine chemicals involves big, stirred batch vessels that require a lot of ancillary equipment, he explains. The reactors not only are expensive and low-performance but also are unsuitable for fast changeovers, such as when a customer urgently needs capacity for a different product.
Companies talk about multipurpose plants as if no barrier exists to filling such plants with a different product, Shott explains. But almost always, a multipurpose plant is configured for a specific product, and costs will be incurred to adapt it for a different product.
Avoiding costs during product changeovers is a complex problem, Shott says. One potential solution is to sequence the work so that each product is a precursor to the next. In making dyes, for example, a sequence of yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and black will be easier to implement than a random sequence where, for example, black comes before yellow, he explains.
However, when a production campaign takes several months, as they do usually, and suddenly orders change, as they do quite often, sequencing can't work. "You have a fundamental problem," Shott says. "You can't choose the sequence because you're always having to catch up.
"To get really fast changeovers, you need to have the ability to, above all, have fast synthesis and separation systems and to make large quantities quickly. You also need reactors and equipment that are easy to open up and clean, with automated technology if possible." Fast reaction times and the ability to make large quantities quickly can be realized with continuous methods using inexpensive but high-performance reactors, Shott says. "A lot more can be done on this technological front," he continues, noting that major pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and Pfizer and major fine chemicals companies such as DSM are now looking into fast reactor systems, a development that is fairly recent. He adds that specialist manufacturers of new reactor systems are emerging, particularly in the U.K.