Hemofarm has a long tradition of using new technologies. It has never been a company that lags behind, quite the contrary. It has always been among the first in the industry to set and accept new trends, modern approaches, and, along with them, the latest technologies.
Technology may be advanced, but if people are not open to new ideas and willing to adopt them, technological equipment will only collect dust – the very same dust that any inspection, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, eagerly tries to find, even when not physically on a site. That willingness to adopt new technologies is at the core of this story.
It all depends on the inspection
With the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, our purpose ‘Caring for people’s health as a trusted partner’ has become more important than ever. Hemofarm clients believe in the quality of their products, and the state and corporate inspections are there to confirm it.
“Any inspection in any type of production is important because it opens ways to reach the market, but it may also be a step towards their closing. It all depends on an opinion of an inspection and re-inspection team. And no, an inspection team does not come only once. It comes every two or three years, from all over the world,” says Nataša Živković, Head of the Lyophilisate Production Department in the Sterile Products Plant (SPP) in Vršac, who celebrates a quarter of a century of service in Hemofarm, at the beginning of a story about her experience when she used virtual glasses in production for the first time.
Asked about organizing inspections under the pandemic conditions and servicing devices and machines where engagement of external associates is required, Nataša replies: “That’s where STADA IT Solutions (SITS) come in.”
Pioneers of IT technology
Bojan Milićević, Microsoft Infrastructure Team Coordinator in SITS, underlines that Hemofarm has always been a pioneer of first technologies, especially in collaboration with Microsoft. “When we received a request to enable external providers to view production machines during the pandemic, after a short consideration, we realized that the AR technology might be the right solution. Microsoft was proactive and sent us an early HoloLens model for testing”, says Bojan, adding that, similarly to this, ten years ago, Hemofarm was among the first in the region to introduce the Enterprise Voice service via Skype for Business program.
Key advantages of the HoloLens include smooth integration with the Windows OS and Office package, primarily the global communication tool – Microsoft Teams, as well as the ability to present additional information in a hologram and a quite high rate of customization.
“To my knowledge, we are the only pharmaceutical company in Serbia and one of few in the region that uses HoloLens. Testing has shown that the device has an excellent video resolution, an option of sharing documents in real-time and communication with multiple persons via MS Teams”, says Bojan.
Flash of an idea
“In the first coronavirus wave, the production had a situation with one of many machines that the Maintenance Sector was responsible for and which required urgent action. Under normal circumstances, it would be necessary to engage an external repair service from abroad, which was almost impossible to organize at that moment. While thinking about overcoming the obstacle, I realized that the rescue was in virtual glasses! You put them on your head, connect online with the repair service and fix the machine”, says Mirjana Stojčevski, Senior Associate in the Quality Assurance and the initiator of this idea.
AR glasses are commonly used in the aviation industry, automotive industry, and logistics, but not so much in the pharmaceutical sector. However, according to Mirjana, the benefits of using HoloLens were evident as early as in the testing period, so the decision to promptly procure the same devices for all production sites did not come as a surprise. “We are a large system and ideas sometimes get ‘lost’ and therefore I‘m exceptionally thrilled that we have made a step into the future with HoloLens”, notes Mirjana.
According to her, the benefits of AR glasses are multiple: they save time, travel, and emergency engagement while contributing to better communication and coordination of associates in real-time, with a feeling that you are at the same location as the person wearing the glasses.
What does it look like in reality?
A SITS operator Danijel Beda was the first HoloLens user in Hemofarm. “At first glance, they look like paintball goggles. One can operate with one’s hands, eyes and voice, but we mainly trained users to operate with hands. We look funny to people around us because we click in the air. It takes some time to ‘feel the device’ in order to establish adequate coordination of movements”, says Danijel.
He highlights that, in addition to inspections, AR glasses will be of great use for Engineering and Maintenance, where it is necessary to follow schemes with your eyes and get instructions from an expert interlocutor. The main challenge is looking at a hologram with the glasses because everything is “there in front of you, but it does not exist physically”. Therefore, he trains employees to be careful and take their time.
“If a user moves quickly, image quality suffers, and a feeling of nausea may emerge. That is why I advise them during training to be calm, with controlled and slow movements. But basically, they can learn the basic functions necessary for inspection within a few hours”, says Danijel.
Initial experience with HoloLens
AR glasses have already been used in several inspections and, according to those who use them in practice, ”they are here to stay because six identical devices are coming soon”. This is also confirmed by Nataša’s enthusiasm during the first virtual inspection, which made her nominate the whole team that participated in introducing this technology for the story.
She underlines that any use of new technology bears an inherent risk. “I was suspicious about HoloLens because I have experience with inspections, and I know how important it is to be cautious. With the glasses on, you feel like on a stage or in a performance. Like Spiderman, you press with a wrist, a menu pops up, you type and look for everything you need. Everything is virtual. Everything is in the air”, Nataša explains.
It takes teamwork to pass inspection control with success. It is especially challenging in sterile production because not all 20 people whose support you need can enter clean rooms. “It is so important. Now colleagues from another sector, who have never been in the sterile production plant, can also see what a machine looks like and have both the image and the sound. They can help and react promptly, without being physically with us”, Nataša says.
Physical and Chemical Control Manager Nevena Noveski agrees and says that a GMP audit with AR glasses was an interesting, useful, and completely new experience.
“The first impression was really strange – knowing that someone sees absolutely everything you see. I think that this is an example of new technology application in its best light because it enables us to overcome distance and all extraordinary circumstances, such as this one in the past year. I’m certain that the AR technology will have wider application in both our and other companies,” Nevena adds.
HoloLens – future of inspections?
First impressions show that, at least as far as the Technical Operations are concerned, HoloLens can respond to inspection requirements very efficiently. However, to what extent is that experience comparable to inspections where inspectors are physically present on a site?
“HoloLens creates new opportunities, but it is not very likely that it will become a standard mode of work in the next ten years or so. Perhaps it can make it easier for inspections, whose teams may consist of fewer people on a site. Some watch via Hololens and others are there physically. It can also be useful for inspection teams who already know us very well. As any other tool, AR glasses are as good as the knowledge and experience of people using them”, Nataša says.
One cannot but get an impression that Hemofarm is now using something that we read about in science-fiction novels. So don’t be surprised if you see people in hallways and production facilities, looking like RoboCops walking “stiffly” and waving their hands through the air because it really isn’t SF. It’s Hemofarm.
“I couldn’t imagine something like this several months ago, let alone 25 years ago, when I started working in Hemofarm. It was unthinkable. When I heard about HoloLens, I couldn’t even dream about myself using them. However, after the first inspection, I said to my colleague – You know what? This thing is great. It is a new challenge for us, but once you overcome initial suspicion, you realize all the benefits that new technology brings,” Nataša concludes.