Bilthoven Biologicals develops and produces vaccines against infectious diseases. The mission of Bilthoven Biologicals (BBIO) is to protect children all over the world from these diseases. It is estimated that more than 30% of the world’s vaccines are produced in Bilthoven, or using BBIO technology. This share is rapidly increasing. BBIO originated from the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM). In 2012, the production activities were privatised. This resulted in the creation of BBIO, as part of India’s parent company Cyrus Poonawalla Group, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. In order to be able to continue to meet the demand for vaccines, BBIO has grown in recent years from 140 to 400 employees, and the end of the growth is not yet in sight. Millions of vaccines are currently produced every year, and in a few years’ time there will be more than four times as many. The BBIO will therefore continue to expand considerably in the coming years, not only by increasing the existing facilities, but also by building new facilities. A safe testing environment for the automation involved in vaccine production is, of course, crucial in this respect.
Ronald de Heij is a senior process automation engineer at BBIO and is as such closely involved in the automation of the (new) factories and processes.
“As a pharmaceutical company, we are dealing with Good Manufacturing Practice, international legislation for quality assurance in the pharmaceutical industry,” he says. “It takes many years to test medicines and therefore vaccines, which is logical: safety first and foremost! Until recently, we developed and tested the automation in the developing production environment, but due to the explosive growth of BBIO, this was no longer ideal. Not only for safety reasons, but also because an average test phase takes many weeks. We wanted to separate this from the production environment.”
Plant A7 is one of the BBIO’s plants under construction. “In order to create the ideal test environment, we actually needed a replica of plant A7.” Ronald explains. “We presented our demand to four suppliers and CoNet was found to best meet our criteria. We wanted to work with a very reliable and expert PCS7 specialist who could deliver on time and offer an excellent price/quality ratio. CoNet was the right partner for us.”
“The biggest challenge was the delivery time”, says Mathieu Smit, who took on the project on behalf of CoNet, supported by Robert Nugteren (engineering) and Emile Seca (documentation).
“Technically, the assignment was excellent: creating a separate virtual test environment based on Siemens’ PCS7 with virtual controllers (SIMIT) and Simatic Batch. No problem at all for CoNet. But to get it done within six weeks … that was a thing. Because next to dealing with your own engineers, you also have to deal with delivery times of the materials, which you have little influence on. Normally, such a project cannot be realised in such a short time. But we understood the urgency. I figured that if I planned the project ultra efficiently and were constantly on top of all parties involved, it could possibly be feasible.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Mathieu: “I had said that ‘the cupboard’ – the virtual plant is literally a physically lockable cupboard that is separate from all other networks and systems within BBIO – would be delivered on a certain day. And I find: do what you say and say what you do. So whatever happened, the cupboard had to physically cross the threshold at BBIO on the agreed day. We succeeded. The job was then completed in two days, on site. We really celebrated that moment!”
Ronald and Mathieu agreed their cooperation was excellent. Mathieu: “It was nice that Ronald was very clear in his expectations. He knew exactly what he wanted and was able to explain that clearly. That’s an advantage with such a project; you don’t have the room to really figure things out together. Everything has to be right at once.”
Ronald: “We are pleasantly surprised by the speed and expertise CoNet has shown. The communication was also very good. Already in the quotation phase, CoNet needed half a word to get things right; they immediately understood our company and our needs and wishes. All in all, we are very satisfied. As far as I am concerned, this was a nice step towards further cooperation.”
Ronald: “At the moment we are continuously developing and testing our production systems in our Industrial Automation department with six of our own people and a number of hirers. You can imagine that testing in an existing production network carries risks, even if they are small. What’s more, no testing is allowed during production. If something happens and a batch has to be interrupted, it will cost half a million. So, until recently, we had to squeeze everything in. Thanks to the Plant A7 replica, we now have the means to develop and test new batch recipes faster and more safely, and create new policies. In short: working in this stand-alone virtual environment is a real breath of fresh air and brings great benefits.”