In the production of medicines and medical equipment, the stakes are high. From gene therapies to vaccines, blood glucose meters to pacemakers and PPE, specificity of manufacturing and quality control are essential to ensure goods can be safely used, provide accurate readings and deliver maximum benefit or protection to recipients. The logistical demands around distribution are also extensive: medicines are highly perishable and valuable items, so they need to be shipped securely and in controlled conditions. The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for instance needs to be transported in thermal shipping containers at ultra-cold temperatures between -90°C and -60°C (-130°F and -76°F) with dry ice.
As with other areas of manufacturing and logistics, 5G can play an important role in production, operations and the supply chain. With 5G networks comes the ability to connect a far greater density of devices, measuring everything from temperature, humidity and location to cameras streaming ultra-high definition video in real-time. This provides greater visibility into the production process enabling earlier fault detection, ensuring correct conditions can be maintained, and creating the ability to easily adjust settings as required. Tracking and remote condition monitoring mean goods can be monitored in factories, warehouses and throughout the supply chain, in real-time, helping to guarantee the security and conditions of goods as they travel to their ultimate destination. The result is less wastage, reduced costs and people receiving the medicines and equipment they need, as they need it.
And it’s not just in the world of medicines and medical equipment manufacturing that 5G can play a role. The transportation of blood, organs or PPE has long been held up as a practical example of the role that drones can play in the sector. With 5G this can become a reality, allowing for drones to be flown and remotely operated beyond the line of visible sight. Such innovations could be of particular value in rural or remote areas which may not be as well served by traditional courier services.
Real-Time Monitoring of Medical and Medicines Manufacturing
The world of medical manufacturing is becoming increasingly complex, requiring a closer integration of science and technology. Precision — whether producing implants or gene therapies — is critical. If, for example, a machine part is not aligned or there is a slight variation in temperature, the quality can be impacted, with consequences for the health and safety of patients.
5G’s high-bandwidth offers the ability to simultaneously connect as many as a million devices per km2. Sensors can, therefore, be deployed through all parts of the factory at a density not previously possible. The low-latency of 5G also enables the data to be viewed in real-time, offering unprecedented levels of insight for production lines. This visibility enables early fault detection and ensures the correct conditions are maintained — resulting in proven less wastage, reduced costs and a more productive factory floor.
As a part of the 5GEM UK project, Vodafone 5G private networks were installed in Ford Motor Company’s Dunton facility and TWI Cambridge, and sensors deployed to monitor laser welding in the production of vehicle electrical components. 5G’s low latency and high data allowance are invaluable here: the network checks 192 welds per part at least 3 times per cycle and in a full-sized facility will be welding hundreds of connections per second. Ford needs to be aware of condition changes to optimise production output and with 5G, this is now possible.
Chris White, Ford's 5GEM lead, said:
"Connecting today's shop floor requires significant time and investment. The present technology can be the limiting factor in reconfiguring and deploying next-gen manufacturing systems. 5G provides the opportunity to transform the speed of launch and flexibility of present manufacturing facilities, moving us towards tomorrow's plants connected to remote expert support and artificial intelligence."
AE Aerospace, a leading SME manufacturing business in the West Midlands, is using high-quality wireless 5G and a range of sensors installed across the factory floor to enable high volume data capture. Machines can communicate with one another in real-time, enabling live updates and changes to achieve greater operational efficiency on the production line.
Further afield, the Gestamp factory in Barcelona was the first digitised factory in Spain to deploy 5G for industrial purposes. They have used 5G and Mobile Edge Computing to connect the physical elements of their plant, such as the robotic welding cells. Sensors are used to capture and process in real-time the data produced by this industrial equipment during its operation. Similarly, BMW Brilliance Automation in China has deployed a private 5G network across all its plants to enable networked machines and systems to exchange data in real-time, optimising the production process.
But the level of precision that can be achieved with 5G is perhaps best demonstrated by MTO Aero, who worked with Ericsson to deploy 5G and Industrial IoT to monitor the production of bladed disks used in jet engines. Quality has a direct impact on safety, and profit. By deploying 5G and vibration sensors, MTO Aero can tightly monitor production in real-time, enabling far earlier detection of issues. Each disk takes approximately 100 hours to produce and rework rates were previously as high as 25%. Now, MTO is saving the equivalent of EUR 27 million annually in one single factory, and up to EUR 360 million globally — plus a reduction of annual CO2 emissions of 360 metric tons.
While these examples are from other sectors, they clearly demonstrate the important role 5G can play in digitising the manufacturing process, improving productivity and the quality of medicines, medical equipment and PPE, where even millimetre alignments in machinery can have a significant impact on the finished product.
High-Precision Mobile Asset Location Tracking in Factories & Warehouses
Factories and warehouses are usually vast spaces: the AstraZeneca MedImmune biologics site in Speke, for example, produces 20 million flu vaccines each year and GSK’s Barnard Castle site ships tropical oral medicines around the world. Even for the SME and micro manufacturers who make up almost 95% of medical device manufacturing in the UK, sites are often large and highly complex. Tracking the movement of materials and goods is imperative to streamlining production.
The 5G-ENCODE Project delivered a private 5G testbed, within the National Composites Centre (NCC), to monitor and track time-sensitive assets to drive operational efficiencies.
High-precision indoor tracking has also been rolled out at the Ericsson 5G Factories in Sweden and Estonia. Low-power tags on pallets, equipment and materials are transmitting real-time location data to the cloud, providing decision-makers with complete visibility of objects and machines. This enables true digital twins for traceability of inventory, reducing loss of assets and ultimately improving end-to-end efficiency. Ericsson estimates 25% efficiency gains compared to manual asset tracking.
Further afield, Verizon and Corning are exploring how “the factory of the future” can use 5G to dramatically speed data collection, allow machines to communicate with each other in near real-time, and wirelessly track and inspect inventory using 5G-connected cameras.
5G enables dense sensor networks and Artificial Intelligence (AI) models that are able to detect leading indicators of defects. 5G networks facilitate the capture and processing of more data, in real-time, allowing a shift to a predictive maintenance model, which impressively, results in detections of issues up to 90 days in advance. This allows for scheduling and controlling of maintenance and repairs, minimising downtime, extending the lifespan of machinery and avoiding wastage from time-based maintenance approaches. Hexagon found that manufacturers can reduce the number of spare parts required by 10% through a shift to asset condition monitoring and subsequent predictive maintenance. In the world of medicines and medical manufacturing, predictive maintenance can help ensure a steady provision of medicines, critical to patients where continuity of treatment is paramount.
As a part of the Worcestershire 5G project, Mazak successfully deployed automated remote predictive maintenance. Taking advantage of 5G’s ability to process large amounts of data, the factory is now able to provide real-time analysis of machine status and feed this information to a cloud system. The company’s spindles are usually only removed for corrective maintenance after an issue or failure occurs but with the arrival of 5G, early warning signs of damage are available; this reduces repair costs, as well as downtime.
The 5GEM UK project enabled Vacuum Furnace Engineering to use 5G connected sensors to remotely monitor a car vacuum furnace’s performance, state of health and environmental factors in order to streamline their maintenance process. Properly maintaining the furnace is vital to ensure a high-quality bond, but maintenance typically requires the machine to be taken out of service, interrupting production. With downtime for the manufacturer costing up to £100,000 per day, 5G and a shift to predictive maintenance could have huge financial implications. The organisation is also using 5G to develop digital twins which can be used to work out solutions to issues without stopping the production line.
Ian Jenner, Director of Control Systems at Vacuum Furnace Engineering (VFE), said:
"In order to feed the predicitive maintenance algorithms deployed in the factory we need to collect large quantities of data from multiple sensors in real-time. 5G provides high bandwith connectivity to support these requirements. With a Mobile Private Network we are not limited by the network design choices relevant for public mobile network users, so in principle, we can tune the network to support the higher uplink bandwith needed for our use cases."
GF Machining in Switzerland is using 5G for predictive maintenance of high-speed milling machines. The speed and acceleration of the machines means extremely low latency is required and 5G fits the bill. The failure rate of the milling process has been greatly reduced, saving the manufacturer EUR30 million per plant per year as a result. Smart Factory (SKT) has likewise deployed 5G-AI Machine Vision to automatically identify product defects. A 12-megapixel camera takes 24 pictures from various directions and sends them to a cloud server, where AI checks for any defects and filters out defective products with robotic arms; it is able to filter out defective products in less than eight seconds.
While these examples are from other sectors, they clearly demonstrate the important role 5G can play in digitising the manufacturing process. facilitating early detection of faults and minimising downtime. As with all sectors, this can have a significant impact on the bottom line, more importantly for the health and social care sector, it can help to ensure continuity of goods for end recipients, be that chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients or PPE for care homes.
Inter-Modal Asset Location Tracking Outside of the Factory
Most goods—both inbound and outbound—will move through multiple transport modes to reach their destination and as a result, tracking is usually complex. It is estimated that less than 10% of logistics companies have full visibility of their supply chain and with the average cost of a pharma theft being estimated at $100,000, the need to be able to track and maintain the security of medicines is great. 5G networks make it much easier to share data across multiple sites, enabling inter-modal asset location tracking for goods. For manufacturers, this means less reliance on logistics firms to provide tracking data, greater visibility and ultimately an enhanced ability to adjust activities to maximise uptime and throughput.ater reach.
The 5G Logistics project connected the Bristol port to 5G, enabling full traceability of products through geo-fencing (where technology is used to create a virtual geographic boundary that triggers an alert when an item leaves the boundary) and continuous monitoring of the movement of goods and materials. Tracking at a container, pallet and individual items level not only improves visibility but boosts efficiency, as real-time automated monitoring and recognition replaces existing manual scanned barcode identification. For manufacturers, this means reassurance that goods are where they’re supposed to be and can move through ports quickly and seamlessly. 5G connected digital locks, such as those being explored by DHL, can both deter and detect incidences of tampering or theft.
INGENIOUS is using 5G and satellite technology to provide end-to-end connectivity to facilitate inter-modal asset tracking: enabling enhanced real-time monitoring of products outside of the factory (both inbound and outbound, including those in shipping containers sailing across oceans without connectivity).
Remote Condition Monitoring
The use of 5G networks and Internet of Things sensors (such as temperature or humidity sensors) allow manufacturers to monitor both the environment in which goods are shipped and the conditions of the goods themselves. This is particularly important in the shipping of medicines which often require very specific and narrow parameters for storage and transport. For instance the Pfizer vaccine which is transported in thermal shipping containers at ultra-cold temperatures between -90°C and -60°C (-130°F and -76°F) with dry ice. Real-time monitoring enables rapid detection of any deviation in conditions (for example, temperature), as well as any tampering with goods, and allows for quick intervention. This is essential for ensuring medicines and medical devices are safely delivered in optimal condition for maximum efficacy.
The 5G Factory of the Future project deployed a 5G enabled Chain of Custody system to increase visibility across the supply chain network through all tiers for assets and products. Smart monitoring of assets in transit enables a Certificate of Conformity to be created, ensuring the product is in acceptable standards when it arrives. Sensors attached to goods and containers record environmental factors such as temperature, events such as shock, and location. Through this real-time condition monitoring, the project expects to achieve an estimated 30% reduction in lost and damaged assets and improved scheduling accuracy.
To DHL Supply Chain, 5G is a critical piece of technology that enables better services for their customers and more efficient supply chain operations. Using private networks and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to track, trace and record the position and status of packages, the internationally-renowned company utilises innovations—such as the Thermonet network - which is able to record the temperature of sensitive life sciences shipments through international transport lanes. This means DHL’s customers are able to optimise their packaging requirements and DHL can provide assurance of end-to-end trackability of environmental conditions. While 5G connected digital locks can both deter and detect incidences of tampering or theft.
Border Control Optimisation
The UK’s departure from the EU has made the process of customs increasingly complex, with significant impacts for manufacturers. Late arrivals of raw materials can delay or halt production processes, and delayed deliveries to customers can incur penalty charges. When dealing with perishable items such as vaccines, the potential loss is even greater. But with 5G, a reliable wireless connection can facilitate a seamless, stress-free transition through borders, globally.
The 5G Logistics project used 5G at Bristol Port to enable geo-fencing (where technology is used to create a virtual geographic boundary that triggers an alert when an item leaves the boundary) and the real-time monitoring of goods for customs purposes in a potential Freeport multiple zone scenario. This will enable improved coordination between Freeports and linked free zones and replace existing manual scanned barcode automation, meaning quicker and easier movement through customs points. With plans to create eight new Freeports across the UK, the learnings from this project can be transferred to other UK ports and Enterprise zones.
China’s Tianjin port has been connected to a 5G network and has successfully used 5G to optimise customs traffic management and subsequently, quarantine services at the port. The wireless network distributes shipping data, such as video surveillance and digital inspection records to the Customs network.
The port observed that 5G “improved data security and reduced latency compared to the public 4G network”. Its traditional private network services are now to be gradually switched over to the 5G network to validate and optimise their stability, reliability and security as well as new business models under 5G.
The 5G-LOGGINOV project is deploying 5G connectivity to the Piraeus port in Greece and the port of Koper in Slovenia to support customs processes and checks. Using 5G enabled cameras on cranes, ultra high-definition video feeds of containers being lifted can detect any tampering with security seals.
Drone Deliveries for Samples, Organs, Blood & Medical Supplies
The delivery of organs and blood supplies is time critical, with thoracic organs such as the heart and lungs only viable for four to six hours outside the body; reliable transport solutions are a must. With 5G, it becomes possible to remotely control drones beyond the line of sight, significantly expanding their potential applications. Drones could therefore in the future be used to widely transport samples, organs, blood and urgent medical supplies more efficiently, with minimal risk of contamination and greater operational coverage and frequency of collections and deliveries in rural areas.
When will this be available? View our predicted timeline here.
Altitude Angel is working to create what is expected to be the world’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted space. The corridor, which will be located in the Thames Valley, will be available to support fully automated drone flights, including those extending beyond visual line of sight and is designed to be an exemplar for mass-commercial drone usage. One of the key use cases the company has identified, is the use of drones for transporting organs and blood supplies.
Meanwhile, Oxfordshire County Council announced a collaboration at the end of 2020 with Unmanned Life, to use unmanned drones to deliver medical supplies. The drones will be used to transport acute medicine and lightweight PPE from pharmacies to care homes. By deploying autonomous drone deliveries, Unmanned Life hopes to provide a quicker turnaround time for medical supplies, increasing the number of supplies delivered at a lower cost and therefore saving more lives. The study will provide a scalability business model to increase the scope of the service (multiple drop-offs, multiple pharmacies, services to hospitals and homes) and bridge the knowledge and skills gap to use drones for the delivery of vaccines.
Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) have already conducted a drone delivery proof of concept in response to Covid-19. Argyll and Bute HSCP covers an extensive rural and island geography, meaning it faces a variety of challenges in transporting medical samples and specimens within its network of hospitals and GP practices. Collection and delivery services are predominantly undertaken by NHS vans that pick up pathology samples and drop off equipment, but the wide geographical distribution of GP practices and hospitals means that the frequency of collection services can be low. Additionally, relying on conventional road transport can have an impact on the timeliness of transport deliveries and collections.
To assist the NHS with the Covid-19 response, a proof of concept trial was developed. The trial aimed to ensure that isolated communities had access to tests, delivered in a fast and efficient way and became the first medical logistics drone delivery trial to be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) conducted in the UK. The trial in Argyll and Bute represents a critical step on the path towards establishing drone delivery as a viable, responsive and resilient logistics solution across a network of healthcare facilities around the country.
The HSCP has been working with Healthcare Improvement Scotland to design a robust evaluation to identify the clinical, operational and productivity benefits to support justification of the use of this technology in Argyll and Bute. It will also provide an evidence base for its use in other areas within NHS Scotland.
"Drones could transform the speed with which doctors can get results of diagnostic tests and improve treatment decisions for patients across rural communities."
said Stephen Whiston, Head of Strategic Plannijng and Performance, Argyll and Bute HSCP.