Andrew Hobbs reports exclusively from our Internet of Manufacturing conference in London, on how AstraZeneca’s senior innovation architect, Steve Woodward, and innovation design analyst Dominic Sheratte, shared the company’s digital transformation journey with delegates.
Internet of Business says
As a global, science-led, biopharmaceutical company with over $22 billion in revenues, AstraZeneca is a natural beneficiary of the monitoring, tracking, and production gains offered by the Internet of Things. Its in-house incubation lab is driving innovation through the use of augmented reality (AR), smart home hubs – such as Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices – supply chain tracking, and digital twin technologies.
AstraZeneca’s incubation lab first looked outwards for external inspiration, before reflecting on its own IoT use cases. The company was keen to learn from leading examples of tech leadership and emerging technologies in the automotive and food industries, having been inspired by such companies’ ability to innovate at scale.
From paper to AR
Today, the team is at a point where it is employing the latest in AI, predictive maintenance, and AR. It’s also looking to the future, specifically at the potential to use blockchain and the long-term promise of quantum computing.
Despite these ambitious goals, Woodward and Sheratte emphasised the need for organisations to start the digital transformation journey by solving real business problems. Company-wide innovation is as much about undergoing a cultural shift as it is deploying and integrating emerging technology, they explained.
In particular, it’s vital to understand the friction points on the factory floor and meet operational teams’ needs with technology, they said; only then does the IoT make business sense.
An enormous challenge
With 17,000 standard operating procedures (SOPs), AstraZeneca faced a monumental digitisation task.
Moving from paper-based SOPs to a digital platform allowed the incubation hub to experiment with Amazon Alexa, using the digital assistant to read out procedures to workers on the factory floor. However, while staff liked the new feature, audibility problems have consigned Alexa to the back burner – for now, at least.
The team has found greater success by using the Unity engine on Microsoft’s HoloLens, and has been able to start translating SOPs for the AR device. This allows operators to navigate through checklists and carry out tasks under the direction of the HoloLens.
In one example, the device traces a red line over a machine operator’s field of vision, showing them where to thread a roll of paper. Introducing this feature allowed new operators to get the SOP right first time, and it has brought about a 25 percent time-saving for existing operators, said Woodward and Sheratte.
While some SOPs are more complex than others (with some running to hundreds of pages), widespread rollout of AR-enhanced procedures could offer significant efficiency gains in an organisation the size of AstraZeneca.
IoT across the manufacturing business
The team has brought the IoT to other areas of the business too, using asset tracking technology to monitor the supply chain and respond to stock issues. Elsewhere, digital twins are enabling predictive maintenance and helping to eliminate downtime, while AI chatbots allow operators to communicate with machines to understand potential problems.
The company is extending this innovation mentality to its new headquarters in Cambridge, where it plans to integrate IoT systems into the fabric of the building. “Digital transformation is not just about manufacturing itself, it also applies to facilities management,” said Woodward.
Even customer-facing elements of the business are seeing the IoT come to the fore, they said. For example, AstraZeneca’s connected asthma inhaler can monitor and communicate drug dosages via Bluetooth.
Yet Woodward emphasised the importance of cybersecurity in devices that could potentially offer hackers access to entire WiFi networks, or to a company’s other products – especially in a field as sensitive as pharmaceuticals.
In the future, AstraZeneca plans to bring IoT technology to ingestible devices – for example, smart tablets that can track patient activity, respiration, and heart health.
The incubation hub also hopes to get the nod to roll out Microsoft’s Hololens technology more widely across AstraZeneca’s manufacturing operations.
In terms of the wider lessons from their digitisation programme, Woodward and Sheratte encouraged attendees to embrace a willingness to experiment – and even to fail – along the way:
We are using this lab approach, this fail-fast mentality, to bring about innovation – and ultimately, success. The proof-of-concept and the technology is actually quite easy, it’s the scaling up that’s the challenge.