When you say the words “lean” or “Six Sigma” on the shop floors of industrial plants across the globe, people immediately know what you’re talking about.
Pioneered decades ago by automakers determined to cut waste out of their manufacturing processes, those same ideas are now starting to permeate the chemical vats and microscopes of biological manufacturing labs.
Biotech companies have traditionally focused their efficiency efforts on improving the “yields” of their biological and chemical processes—essentially trying to boost production by refining the scientific procedures. But over the past five to 10 years, the biotech industry has followed the lead of legacy manufacturing industries and implemented some of the same “just-in-time” principles on the equipment and labor side of the equation, industry observers said.
One such example is a project in Madison, WI, at a small contract manufacturer of proteins for pharmaceutical, biotech, agricultural, and diagnostics customers. The local division of Aldevron, a company based in Fargo, ND, has brought in researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Quick Response Manufacturing to study the company’s manufacturing processes and outline a strategy for improving efficiency.
Aldevron’s local 13-person lab is already a lean operation, but vice president and general manager Tom Foti says the partnership with the university could help shrink the facility’s product delivery timeline by at least 25 percent—which would shave a week or two off of a typical four to five-week process.
For a company that positions itself as a more expensive, but high quality contract manufacturer of proteins, that’s a significant productivity gain that could prove an important selling point. Aldevron is hoping the productivity gains from lean manufacturing will help it fend off overseas manufacturers that provide the same services at cheaper rates.
“Because our labor force is more expensive, we’ve got to figure out how to do things faster,” Foti said.
And as the Aldevron project advances, Foti and his academic partners want to share what they learn with the broader biotech community in Madison.
“Maybe they should adopt some of these tools or ideas so that the greater biotech manufacturing community in Madison can compete more effectively in the global market, so that our local industry can be stronger,” Foti said.
Foti’s company has been working with the university for more than a year on the project. The research is being funded by a four-year, $325,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded last year, said Ananth Krishnamurthy, one of the project’s principal investigators. Krishnamurthy is a UW-Madison associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and director of the university’s Center for Quick Response Manufacturing.
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