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  • Date posted:25/02/2021
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By Richard Dane

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm, but none more so than in the world of manufacturing. Manufacturing is experiencing a period of rapid transformation involving the digitisation and automation of manufacturing processes and procedures.

This is none more so evident than in the life sciences industry, which has experienced recent supply chain and manufacturing capacity and continuation issues like never before.

Industry 4.0 had been around long before the global pandemic struck. The fourth industrial revolution of manufacturing – Industry 4.0 as it’s been nicknamed – refers to the technology-driven initiative to digitalise and automate production lines, processes and manufacturing systems. It covers everything from Big Data and Analytics to Augmented Reality and the Internet of Things.

Although some life science organisations had already begun to implement Industry 4.0 solutions pre-pandemic, I’ve only witnessed it gain momentum in the past year.


Enter the global pandemic

Virtually overnight, manufacturing plants across India and China were shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For those that didn’t close, their ways of working significantly changed. Staff were instructed to work from home where possible and reduced headcount was introduced to ensure social distancing measures.

But with pressure to develop and distribute effective coronavirus vaccines, it was important that manufacturing operations continued smoothly and, in many cases, ramped up. The whole world was relying on it.

Some organisations had already begun to implement Industry 4.0 technologies prior to the pandemic.

A former SVP of Product Supply and Digital Transformation for a leading pharma organisation stated:

“Since 2015, the life sciences industry has ramped up its digital transformation. In order to compete and survive, the top 20 pharma and bio organisations are all in the midst of digital transformations”.

So, what are the reasons why Industry 4.0 has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s all about the data

Life sciences organisations generate a large quantity of data every day. But how that data is handled isn’t always straightforward.

The former SVP also shared:

“A big focus in the industry right now is making better use of the data that’s collected. The life sciences industry gathers a lot of data, but it doesn’t always use it efficiently”.

Automating data processes presents an opportunity to make decisions faster, accelerate product development and significantly improve business performance.

We’re witnessing more pressure on supply chains to have the right materials at the right time for manufacturing. Increased data efficiency allows for more oversight of what materials are needed and when, and thus reduces waste. And in a time where every drug or vaccine matters, this is of high importance.

Virtual working

The pandemic has forced organisations to rethink their existing operations and how they could be made more streamlined.

For organisations that enforced social distancing and a reduced headcount, technology was vital. Being able to monitor and troubleshoot manufacturing production virtually and remotely proved to be a tangible benefit. This way, companies can run at full force whilst protecting their workforce.

The idea is that we can future-proof operations, processes, and staff, so that next time a global event like the coronavirus pandemic occurs, we will be more prepared.


A key to the successful implementation of any digital transformation involves the people – after all, they will be the ones using it. Are they willing to adapt to this new way of working?

With the pandemic in full swing, those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with digital technologies were now forced to use them in all aspects of their daily life including online banking, shopping, and pharmacy enquiries. This has resulted in a knock-on effect of improving their willingness and technology skills to welcome digital solutions to the work environment.

An SVP of Human Resources for Global Technical Operations said:

“Just as maintaining operations virtually has been a huge challenge, equally so has been figuring out how to manage, motivate and support the people in a virtual setting. This has led to large scale training and adoption of new technologies throughout the business which hopefully will serve to improve the speed of adoption for future digital initiatives.”

There is still a long way to go, however, both in terms of implementing current technologies but also being prepared for future technologies that are rapidly advancing.

The life sciences vs other industries

It should come as no surprise that the life sciences are slow to adopt Industry 4.0. It’s other industries, like the automotive industry that is truly setting the pace and reaping the benefits of technological advancement.

The SVP of Product Supply stated:

“It’s a 3-5-10 year process until the life sciences catches up with the current situation in the automotive industry, particularly in terms of automation. Cell & Gene Therapy could catch up soon, but we must use data and bring it from clinical stages to operations”.

A Global OPEX and Digital Transformation Director also noted:

“The main reasons for this lag are margins. The life sciences may have less of a drive to invest and improve and still have good margins (compared to other industries). It always comes back to money”.

So why is there still a long way to go for the life sciences? What are the challenges that the industry is facing?

Existing vs new facilities

Firstly, it can be harder to upgrade brownfield or existing facilities with Industry 4.0 technologies.

This is why we often see Industry 4.0 solutions happening at newer sites. Although it’s more expensive, it’s far easier to construct sites from scratch that involves automation and digitisation than to introduce it into existing facilities.

At older sites, you’re likely to find processes and procedures that have been strictly adhered to for years. Staff are used to manufacturing in specific ways. When you consider re-training the workforce on how to use new and advanced technologies, it’s no wonder life science organisations implement Industry 4.0 at their newer sites. The initial disruption this would cause to operations is not worth it when you consider the current supply and demand for medical products.

Highly competitive talent

Implementing Industry 4.0 means nothing unless you have the experts in your ranks who understand how to utilise and harness it.

I’ve seen a huge increase in demand for this kind of talent in the past year. With an extremely niche skillset, it’s a highly competitive market to successfully engage and secure these individuals. There are more and more positions opening for leaders in automation, VR and AI just to name a few. But what I’ve noticed is there are more job ads than available talent.

This is a massive problem for ambitious life science organisations looking to accelerate Industry 4.0 when they don’t have the knowledge or expertise behind them.

If you’re finding it increasingly difficult to secure these kinds of individuals, then Fraser Dove can help. Our comprehensive networks enable us to find a needle in a haystack. We pride ourselves on our commitment and dedication to securing the talent you need, however niche that may be. If you’re interested in learning more, please head over to our website.

A different perspective

However, in such an uncertain and unprecedented year, many organisations may have hesitated or paused their implementation of Industry 4.0 initiatives.

When I spoke with the Global OPEX and Digital Transformation Director, who supports a large and varied network, he said:

“With COVID-19 still around, the life sciences are more focused on delivering products than pushing new digital initiatives right now. Maybe after the pandemic it will happen, but right now there’s no investment into digitalisation as it’s all hands on deck for maintaining and increasing manufacturing capacity immediately”.

This suggests that Industry 4.0 is seen as an interface rather than a catalyst to accelerate digital improvements.


The life sciences industry is the most innovative in the world. It makes sense then for life science organisations to adopt the innovation in new technology that would take their manufacturing to the next level. Otherwise, they risk missing out on reaping all the benefits.

Despite the challenges of implementing Industry 4.0, I believe I’ve witnessed an acceleration of it in the past year. This alone can be seen in the hiring and talent strategies of life science organisations. There’s been a considerable uptake in hiring for expert talent who understand how to implement this technology. That can’t just be a coincidence.

I think as time goes on, we will see more and more life science organisations turn to Industry 4.0 as a competitive strategy. I’m looking forward to seeing how this in turn improves manufacturing operations and product development.

For more life science insights…

* Fraser Dove International is a talent consultancy operating exclusively across the life sciences industry. While our roots lie in executive search, we provide more than the traditional recruitment services. Uniquely placed within the market, we have been providing cutting-edge talent solutions and insight to organisations at all stages of their journey – from start-up to established leaders – since 2013.