The pace of automation will grow in future

A leading manufacturer of hospital equipment, Filtration equipment, and laboratory machines, Pharmalab India targets the life-sciences and food and beverages sectors in India and abroad. Backed by precision engineering and adherence to cGMP guidelines, the company has more than 3,000 product installations in the geographies such as Africa, Europe, Middle East, North America, and South East Asia. With three manufacturing sites located in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, its flagship offerings such as pure steam generator, WFI generator, etc. are accepted world-over. Contributing to Make in India mission by winning global acceptance for its products made in India, the company has been addressing the needs of the pharmaceutical and life sciences verticals for the last 56 years. In an interview with Cosmedic India, the company CEO Kunal Shah provides insights into pharmaceutical market trends in India and the new developments at Pharmalab. Excerpts of that interview:

Which industries does Pharmalab India target?

We target industries such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, healthcare, agro-chemicals, and liquor. If you go to the website you will get all the details.

What do you see as the demand trends in the Indian market today? How optimistic is the business outlook according to you? 

I believe that pharmaceutical is one industry in India that will always be developing. There is no doubt about it that India will soon be the hub of the global pharmaceutical industry. There will always be demand for the products from Indian pharmaceutical companies. That is how the future currently looks like.

At the moment, we see a little bit of a slowdown in the market. But it is temporary and we hope to experience exponential growth very soon. Pharmalab can be seen as part of Pharma-ancillary segment and even this segment is growing. To give you an idea, our business has grown substantially during the past five to 10 years. We have had plants that have grown exponentially in terms of daily production volume as well as revenues.

You spoke of slowdown. How serious is that especially from the context of your own business? 

There has been a temporary phase of a slowdown in the market but I don’t see that becoming a serious issue. You have to understand that we operate in a project-based industry environment.

When an industry’s business activity is project-based, there is a phase of investment and then there is a phase when the customers are trying to make money by utilising the investments made. There always are periods of spending and periods of utilization of those spends resulting in ups and down in sales for the equipment suppliers. It is a cyclical process.

What do you see as demand-side trends in the market today? What are the pharmaceutical companies asking for (from their suppliers)? 

Two themes seem to be at the basis of customer conversations that cut across the buying decisions across the pharmaceutical sector in India. Today our customers can be seen giving a lot of importance to documentation and automation. Quality is another aspect that is growing in importance. There has been a sea-change in how customers think and view their core equipment investments today vis-a-vis a decade ago. Ten years back, automation was minimal. Documentation was nearly non-existent. Quality was acceptable at a ‘so-so’ level. Today, utmost importance is given not only to the final output of the product but also to the quality of the machine, the built quality, the documentation, the level of automation, the recording systems as well as processes, and so on.

Today’s customers ensure that every single machine they buy is 21CFR-part11 compliant. There are five validations for most of them. Every pressure vessel needs to comply with ASME standards. There is a greater emphasis on the quality and regulatory aspects at the time of RFP and actual buying today than ever before. 

What explains this change in the thought process of the Pharma companies in India? 

Forces of globalisation have ensured that the Indian companies have greater exposure to the export markets and the stringent norms prevalent therein. Our experience of the past 10 years has made us understand, learn and grow as a practice of doing this — better documentation and expansive automation.

Companies change their attitude toward technology as they grow in global exposure. I can say this from our own experience. We supply to more than 50 countries in the world which covers countries spanning from the Far Eastern countries like Japan to the USA. All the top global multinationals demand a greater level of automated data capture, documentation, and automation in their machines. Given the high exposure of Indian companies, the expectation about documentation is also at its highest level in India rather than in any other country. 

Interesting. Why is that so? 

The knowledge-base of the pharmaceutical companies in India has grown phenomenally in the recent past. We notice that in most other countries, it is only the top eight to 10 companies that insist on documentation. However, the companies in the mid-market segment are not so stringent.

However, in India, we observe that the RFPs of even the mid-market Pharma players in India are extremely detail-oriented. The procurement teams in the Indian pharmaceutical companies know what they are looking for. They are the authorities in their domains and make no exceptions when it comes to meeting quality standards. They meticulously specify every small feature needed in their equipment and they do a thorough comparison of available technology options before procuring new equipment. 

What new technologies are being adopted in the market today? What have you been incorporating in your products, of late? 

Pharmaceutical players are seeking to achieve end-to-end automation–from the time of process management to recording, to keeping the records in the right place. For instance, earlier in one of our steriliser equipment, its door had to be opened manually. Today, it is at the touch of a button or the (live production) process itself can define (and decide) when and whether the steriliser door should open or close. Companies are looking at minimising human intervention to reduce the associated risk of potential errors.

Another example can be our water injection system. In the past, this system had to be turned on and off to ensure water’s entry and release. Today, it is connected to a tank. When the tank is full, the equipment runs at a very slow speed or shuts down. When the tank level dips, it runs at a higher speed. Given such automation, you do not need a human worker to intervene in the process to manually start or stop the system.

We are incorporating automation in our equipment. Take the example of our loading and unloading systems. Earlier the system’s cart used to be pushed manually into the steriliser. We have automated it by putting railings and introducing guiding systems which push the entire trolley into the steriliser. I believe, the pace of automation will only grow in future. Equipment manufacturers will have to incorporate all the latest technology innovations and advancements in their products to remain relevant and successful in the years to come.