Rising competition in domestic and global markets, accompanied by highly stringent regulatory norms have made it necessary for the pharma industry to shorten drug development time without compromising on quality. Since, chemicals are unavoidable constituents of drug development processes, chemical engineers have key roles to play in this scenario. Industry experts consider chemical engineers vital to the success that’s been achieved in scaling up the drug development process in India and across the world.
Chemists have always been seen as the face of the pharma sector. Yet, on many occasions, chemical engineers are the ones who are supporting them from behind the scenes as they possess experience in multiple disciplines like mathematical modelling, reactor design, equipment design, scale up phenomena, safety analysis, rate and equilibrium processes, reaction rate analysis, fluid dynamics etc. Though pharma industry is not the largest employer of chemical engineers, the contribution of the available lot of engineers to the drug manufacturing companies cannot be ignored.
“Pharma industry requires continuous R&D to develop different products and molecules. This requires a lot of primary work on pilot plant/ bench scale for developing the most feasible and economical process to get best conversion and yield. Chemical engineers play an important role using scale up techniques to arrive at plant scale model with optimised power utilisation and achieve same results as found in pilot scale,” informs Prakash Purandare, Consulting Chemical Engineer
Role in reducing drug prices
Pharma industry is always under pressure to reduce drug prices. In a price-sensitive market like India, this issue becomes even more pertinent. If the pharma industry manufactures drugs in an economical way, it will definitely help to avoid hassles while deciding the price of the final product. This is where chemists can rely upon
The common observation is that many life savings drugs are very costly. But, actual manufacturing costs could be much less. However, according to Purandare, drug prices are not just dependent on manufacturing cost, but rather on its technology cost, monopoly of product and its demand and supply.
He informs, “Chemical engineers have a major role in utility cost reduction and developing innovative ideas. Heat recovery is a very common, simple approach to reduce utility/ fuel cost. From a chemical engineer’s point of view, manufacturing cost, mainly utility cost, can be reduced by studying different heating/ cooling time cycles for peak utilisation of available utilities. Operations can also be staggered for best utilisation of equipment/ utilities. Hot water/ steam/ hot air generation via waste heat is very common. But it may not be a strange idea to cool reactors/ process coolers with other process media. Solvent recovery has always been a major contributor to cost reduction. Most of the solvent recovery plants in pharma industry are batch operated. There is huge cost saving in both initial and running costs if converted into continuous.”
He adds, “Major cost reduction would be to convert water cooled coolers with air-cooled finned tube coolers wherever possible. This will dramatically reduce not only initial installation piping, insulation and civil cost but also maintenance cost on circulation pumps, valves etc. Pharma manufacturing till today is manually operated at different stages, being batch plants. But, many manual operations can be switched over to maximum possible automisation. Transfer times are a key area to be looked at where lot of valuable production time is wasted. It can be improved by enhanced conveying methods.”
There are a few more ways through which chemical engineers can help minimise the drug prices. They can optimise reaction condition to minimise raw materials and maximise product. Process intensification is also very important which allows maximum yield of product, simple process with lesser unit operations and less waste
A chemical scientist from a reputed petrochemical company in India, on the condition of anonymity, opines, “Chemical engineer has a crucial role to play when chemists develop a process and it is not possible to scale up some of the steps. His suggestions should be taken during process development from engineering perspective.
Chemical engineer’s involvement is useful in getting optimum process.”
In the quest of due recognition
Despite the long list of services that chemical engineers offer to pharma companies, they often do not receive their due in the industry. Why is it so?
“Pharma plants are mainly operated batch wise and have multi-purpose facility. Once a plant is installed and process is stabilised, chemical engineers may not have a significant role other than monitoring day-to-day operations. However, there is huge potential on heat recovery, innovative unit operations and utility optimisation where chemical engineers can put their expertise and improve on production cost,” explains Purandare.
Pharma companies are mainly dominated by the chemists who have an expertise in chemistry. However, as per experts, big players in pharma do have separate technology transfer or scale up divisions. On the other hand, a very common observation is that medium and small scale companies generally do not employ chemical engineers and hence processes there are mostly unoptimised and give less product. Sometimes lack of knowledge and ignorance also make chemists to not involve chemical engineers in the processes.
The Indian pharma industry is in the transition phase. Its ambitious plans of making a shift from generic to innovation driven industry need to be backed by skills of chemical engineers. The petrochemical industry is the biggest employer for the chemical engineers. Surprisingly, the Indian pharma industry, which is third largest by volume in the world and also one of the leading chemical-dependant industries, employs negligible number of chemical engineers. For its own good, it’s high time for the Indian pharma sector to become more appreciative of the role of chemical engineers in its progress and growth.