Preactor proves to be the perfect sequencing remedy for NPIL

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NPIL Pharma is rapidly emerging as a leading global custom pharmaceutical manufacturer with sites in India, Canada and the UK.

NPIL Morpeth has only been in existence since the former Pfizer plant was purchased by NPIL in June 2006 and is an integrated formulations site with the capacity to handle projects from early phase development through to full commercial manufacturing. The 50m turnover company currently supplies over 400 finished dosage SKUs to over 100 markets including the US, Europe and Japan. When NPIL Morpeth needed to update its legacy production planning and scheduling processes, it found the perfect remedy in Preactor International.

The Challenges

NPIL Morpeths main expertise is in producing tablet dosage form pharmaceuticals for arthritis, heart disease and female healthcare. There are three main stages of operation on site, the first of which is the manufacturing of the active pharmaceutical ingredients from raw materials. These active pharmaceutical ingredients are then moved to the pharmaceutical area where they are precisely blended with additional neutral ingredients and pressed into tablets. These tablets are then sent to the packaging department where they need to be correctly packaged according to a very precise set of requirements. It is also here that the greatest planning and scheduling challenges occur.

Alan Robson is IT Director at NPIL Morpeth and has 6 years experience of working on the Morpeth site. He explains why the packaging area in the company is so mission critical. Just as the wrong formulation of a pharmaceutical can have serious consequences for patients, so can the wrong packaging and labelling. There are so many factors to take into consideration in this area, it is vital to get everything absolutely right, every time. To achieve this, the company must meticulously control its 6 packaging lines, all of which have varied capabilities. Some are more suited to general purpose products and can be configured in a multiplicity of ways while others are much more oriented to certain specific products. Clearly this brings a planning and sequencing constraint but it is only one of many, which Robson elaborates at length.

Each finished pack of product is subject to a huge array of permutations. The tablets themselves can be in a variety of dosage levels and supplied in different quantities per pack. The blister packaging itself can be of variable thickness as can the foil used to seal the tablets into the packaging, with each being subject to potentially different designs, language and labelling. In addition to the sealed tablets, each pack needs to contain the correct patient information which again is subject to country specific regulations, language considerations and branding. Moreover, some products require minimal information while others requires considerable information the former can be on thicker paper while the latter is on thinner but larger sheets of paper. This in turn affects the setup of the leaflet folding machines on each line. The outer box or carton is also subject to a variety of branding and design considerations in addition to language and labelling with each box being subject to a unique bar code and laser etched code.

To add to this, digital vision systems are used at every stage of the packaging process to ensure the correct tablet is combined with the correctly labelled carton, leaflet and exterior packaging again which must be set up specifically according to a particular job. Moreover it is entirely possible that legislation and regulations may have changed since the last run of any given product so all labelling information must be checked for up-to-date accuracy. 

While a lot of actual labelling and carton design is done in house, these are all printed externally which means subcontractor lead times need tight monitoring and accurate management. Clearly a product cant be sent to customers with labelling and safety information that is out of date. With all of these permutations optimising setup times is vital as these can take anywhere up to 5 hours per line. Production runs on the other hand can take less than 5 minutes if producing product for a small country yet can run to days if comprising a large bulk order. Its no wonder that Robson identifies sequencing as the key challenge to be overcome. Significant time can be saved by getting a smooth flow of product through each line. As many products have similar packaging requirements, sequencing these correctly minimises the changes to any line which can cut changeover times dramatically. In a similar way, some products do not present a cross contamination risk so its important we identify these and factor this in too.

Early Solutions

In order to manage this sequencing process, the company had traditionally relied on the skill of the planners, using a combination of complex spreadsheets and the limited scheduling capabilities of the companys previous MRP system. According to Robson, while the system worked it was very time consuming and also presented considerable risk. We knew what we were getting out at the end but its fair to say we werent very sure how the planning system worked. A lot of the vital sequencing knowledge was locked up in key personnel within the company and because each potentially might make use of a different spreadsheet, there was a real issue with version control and retaining control of what was happening and when. There was also no feedback mechanism between spreadsheet and MRP which meant that it was very difficult to monitor actual progress with projected progress. Visibility was more along the lines of what should be happening as opposed to what is actually happening. Time was the biggest cost to us everything took considerable amounts of time which tied up resource and therefore impacted our efficiency. 

The Search for a better Solution: Why Preactor?

The search for a more efficient system began in 2004 when the Morpeth facility became obliged to evaluate an alternative MRP system from a parent company. This did not have scheduling and sequencing capabilities so sourcing an alternative became a key concern. Robson had previously seen Preactor in action working in conjunction with MFG/Pro and when he became aware that Pfizers Sandwich facility had begun using Preactor successfully, he wanted to investigate this more. A small team from Morpeth visited Sandwich to get first hand experience of Preactor used in a live pharmaceutical context and hear directly from those using the system. Everybody in Pfizer was very enthusiastic about Preactor remarks Robson. They all said that it had made their lives easier and I could see immediately the potential of using Preactor at Morpeth.

Implementation and Go Live

A decision to purchase a Preactor system direct from Preactor International was made in summer 04 and work commenced on integrating Preactor with the new proposed MRP system. Shortly after this however, the site was put up for sale so work began then to integrate Preactor into the companys existing MRP system. This was done by a small team within NPIL led by John Devenport, one of the Planners at the site and several Preactor specialists. 

The first task was to map out the functionality split between Preactor and the MRP system and identify all the potential sequence dependencies. The objective was to build a model of constraints and products within Preactor that would at least replicate the results achieved by the multiple spreadsheets previously used. This included a custom APS rule so that orders could be campaigned in time cycles to minimise changeover times and increase efficiencies.

Having successfully achieved this, NPIL was now at a stage to use its MRP system to generate a rough plan which was then fed into Preactor for fine tuning. Once this was working effectively, Preactor was then used to feed back planning information into the MRP system in order to keep a tight synchronisation between the 2 systems. Once this was achieved, NPIL went live with Preactor on a line by line basis, monitoring the performance and benefits continually, with the system now having been running successfully for 18 months.

The Benefits

The first noticeable benefit was simply the ability to automatically plan packaging runs by campaign and know that Preactor had correctly grouped all relevant products together. The next noticeable benefit was almost as immediate and that was the system would produce a sufficiently accurate plan, very quickly, which an experienced planner with knowledge of the subtle variations of each line could fine tune accordingly. In many ways, Preactor delivers the same very high levels of accuracy that NPIL was already achieving, but according to Robson, the key benefit however is the time saving which he identifies to be in the region of at least 2 hours. This isnt just 2 hours for every new plan - its 2 hours every time we have to adjust the plan. You can see how the time savings soon mount up and this extra time can be used to drive further efficiency savings.

Before Preactor the time taken to create a plan meant that our smoothed planning horizon was 12 weeks at most, now it is possible to smooth plan out as far as we have orders / forecast, thus giving greater visibility of capacity issues that may be looming.

The results have been so impressive that Preactor is now being used to plan one of the smaller laboratories and is being considered for use in the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing area and the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients area in the near future. There is also the potential to use the system to schedule work through all the laboratory areas of the site. Preactors Dr Nigel Shires who was involved in the implementation comments, The Preactor APS system is ideally suited to the requirements of NPIL. This was apparent from my very first telephone call with Alan and subsequent meetings at Pfizer in Sandwich and in Morpeth. During this time the project has been managed well in a changing environment, with appropriate and realistic targets and requirements being identified and solutions and training being implemented by NPIL and our Principal Consultant, Marcus Block.  We have had a long and successful global relationship with Pfizer and now that NPIL is a separate entity, we are pleased that our partnership with NPIL has also resulted in a successful solution to their complex scheduling and sequencing problem and look forward to a long and fruitful relationship in the years ahead.

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