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Pharmaceutical Technology Challenge Accepted: From Special-purpose Machine Builder to Innovation Leader with Global Stature
The pharmaceutical industry has never been more dynamic. The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines is the best example, and an excellent opportunity for an innovation leader in aseptic production. Bausch+Ströbel is determined to be at the forefront of the competition for the best technical solutions.
The garage startup company is synonymous with innovative capacity par excellence — and it’s usually associated with Silicon Valley. If you mention Packaging Valley, however, most people shrug their shoulders. Only insiders are familiar with the term and know that world market leaders in packaging technology have also started out in garages.
But with the launch of the Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine from Biontech and Pfizer this situation might have changed. The Pfizer video showing a filling line emblazoned with the unmistakable Bausch+Ströbel lettering on the front has been clicked on YouTube millions of times. Anyone visiting Bausch+Ströbel’s headquarters in Ilshofen, Germany, will immediately recognize the logo. Visible from afar, it glows red above the extensive company grounds: multi-storey buildings in modern architecture, outdoor facilities with lots of well-tended greenery — construction and expansion is going on everywhere. Everything exudes with a dash of Swabian understatement. There is no trace of the garage in Michelbach/Bilz, Germany, where Wilhelm Bausch, Rolf Ströbel and Siegfried Bullinger tinkered with an ampoule filling and sealing machine for hair setting products in 1965/66.
Today, more than 50 years later, Bausch+Ströbel is a world market leader in aseptic filling — and a lot has happened in recent years. In 2017, a new office building and a new production hall were inaugurated. Currently, a two-storey building is being constructed that will house the new electroplating shop, sorting equipment construction, and the mechanical and electrical training departments. Construction is also underway at the company’s US site in North Branford, CT.
In the pharmaceutical industry, the trend towards personalized medicine demands new plant concepts.
The staff there have just celebrated the ground-breaking ceremony for an office and production building. And in Neuenstein near Heilbronn in Germany, colleagues are putting the finishing touches to a building with 5,000 square metres of floor space. The syringe conditioning department will move in here in the next few weeks, a necessary step because the assembly halls in Ilshofen are bursting at the seams.
“Technically, these are our most complex machines,” says Dr Hagen Gehringer, technical managing director at Bausch+Ströbel since 2013. The technicians synchronize up to 100 servo motors in the highly interlinked systems that prepare pre-sterilized syringes, vials and ampoules for nest-by-nest processing in the filling and closing machines. This market will continue to grow, Gehringer emphasizes: “We are talking about allogeneic and autologous individualized therapies — the smaller the quantities become, the higher the probability that these will be processed nest by nest”.
We offer top solutions and meet even the most difficult technological challenges.
Everything Flows, Including at Bausch+Ströbel
The new building activities are only the tip of the iceberg; a lot else has changed within the company in recent years. The number of employees worldwide has leapt from 900 in 2013 to 2,000 now. The growing dynamics of the pharmaceutical market have also made organizational and structural changes necessary. Gehringer has played a solid part in this. The calm, soft-spoken man holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and is the first person not to belong to the family tribe. What was a novelty back then is taken for granted today. The group of managing directors has grown to five, and only recently Ralph Frank joined the company to strengthen the production area.
Gehringer remembers the early days fondly. He says he found technical attention to detail, a lot of technical competence and a very strong loyalty to the company. He speaks enthusiastically of his management team, who act according to clear guidelines: Understanding and involving employees, always focusing on the customer, and making the best decisions in the interest of the company. “Looseness and lightness must not be missing,” says Gehringer. “Work should also be fun.”
Together with a highly motivated team, these are characteristics that have led the special machine builder to a high level of excellence and make it a sought-after partner among pharmaceutical companies. “We offer top solutions and meet even the most difficult technological challenges,” Gehringer emphasizes. And these challenges have not lessened in recent years. Bausch+Ströbel operates in a demanding market environment. The development of Covid-19 vaccines, the associated production processes and the establishment of a functioning supply chain shine a spotlight on what has been important in the pharmaceutical industry for years: Bringing new active ingredients to market as quickly as possible and being faster than the competition. In addition, markets are shifting and the trend towards personalized medicine demands new plant concepts.
The Market is Getting Faster — and There’s More Competition
“Business is becoming more fast-paced, competition more intense,” Gehringer explains. “One or the other has discovered that pharma is a lucrative industry and it might be worthwhile to get into pharmaceutical packaging and filling processes.” The competition in Packaging Valley is also wide awake. There is a permanent technological head-to-head race; being just a little bit better is not enough here. “We claim to be the world market leader, so we also need a growth strategy,” says Gehringer, formulating the company’s mission and setting an ambitious target of ten per cent annual growth in turnover.
However, growth is only possible to a limited extent with pure special machine construction, with a development team that tailors machines for each customer. It is rather rare to sell large quantities of such individual developments. “At some point, the only orders left are those that others don’t want because they are too technically complex,” says the head of technology — in other words, a niche existence. It is true that one can survive well in niches, but that is not enough for the team in Ilshofen with their growth targets.
In recent years, Gehringer has therefore established a structured product management group that also takes risks and pushes developments that are then offered on the market without a concrete customer order. “We work out the specifications and focus on two or three concepts. Then we look for a lead user with whom we continue to develop,” Gehringer explains. This is to keep the risk low and secure market acceptance. The customer contacts that have grown up over decades are of course advantageous to Bausch+Ströbel here. Relationships based on partnership and trust create a basis on which it is possible to work well together.
This is shown by the development of VarioSys, a highly flexible modular system that was created together with Boehringer Ingelheim, and the latest product, a cleaning machine for vials, for which Bausch+Ströbel was able to win two development partners. All systems are now modular and are then configured according to customer requirements. Only this way of working enables the short delivery times that vaccine manufacturers have been demanding in the last two years. “What counts is speed: how quickly we develop products, how quickly we deliver,” emphasizes the head of technology.
And what counts in turn is how quickly the developers adapt new technologies — for example, a new scale technology with vibration compensation, or drive technologies, such as linear direct drives, that enable completely new design options for the machines. Already, almost 50 per cent of the machines consist of control technology. Anyone who walks through the construction hall and sees the metre-long cable harnesses waiting to be installed gets an impression of the complexity of today’s machine generations in terms of control technology. The share of digitalization is also increasing, says Gehringer. Digital twin, augmented reality, remote access via iPad and VR glasses: Customers expect all these today. “All our new machine generations are delivered with our Omnia suite, in which we bundle our digital services,” Gehringer says.
The Time of the Quiet Room is Finally Over
Such new developments are often created in partnerships: Gone are the times in which mechanical engineers quietly tinkered away in solitude, like Disney’s Gyro Gearloose. A new openness has taken hold. Bausch+Ströbel even has a start-up, named KyooBe Tech. In Leinfelden, away from the campus in Ilshofen, a highly motivated team of pharmacists, scientists, engineers and developers is developing concepts for the medicine of the future. Uninfluenced by the existing business, KyooBe Tech aims to build up pharmaceutical understanding and think about future production methods for the new therapies, says Gehringer.
“We are pursuing a disruptive approach in Leinfelden, and we also based our choice of location on where we can get the best workforce,” Gehringer explains. There is already an initial success. Together with three Fraunhofer institutes, the Bausch+Ströbel start-up is developing a new process for vaccine inactivation for large-scale use. Further technologies are in the pipeline.
Gehringer is certain that in future the action will be in cell and genetic engineering: “Competition for the best technical options will pick up in the next few years.” Bausch+Ströbel’s claim is to be at the forefront: technically and in the perception of customers. n