Augmented Reality in St. Gallen and Villars-sur-Glâne. How Vifor Pharma leverages it’s potential for intelligent, dynamic teamwork systems.


The past year has seen some very cool hi-tech developments in our packaging capability. The Augmented Reality system developed by start-up company Goodly Innovations and prototyped with Vifor Pharma is truly innovative and can claim to be a world first in pharma. Quick to grasp the potential of such a system, Vifor Pharma has been the first company to pilot the Goodly Innovations product, helping to improve it so that it now works well to their specific requirements.

Augmented reality uses an optical device to create a ‘mixed reality’ (i.e. real and virtual) 3D visual environment that can also include superimposed text and graphics. In the industrial environment, it’s increasingly being adopted as an effective way to put information in a real-world working context. One of the breakthrough innovations with the Goodly Innovations system is that it is uses elements of multiplayer gaming technology. There is a central control unit, the OptiworX Augmented Reality Guidance Teamwork System, which communicates with any number of independent augmented reality devices (‘smart glasses’) worn by operators. The program is constantly aware of who is where and what they are doing, adjusting tasks accordingly. It’s potentially a huge aid to both productivity and quality, minimising changeover times and making the process less error-prone. As a result, planned and unplanned downtimes are decreased, and effective run time is enhanced.

Proof of concept was carried out on a packaging line at St Gallen, supervised by Head of Product Group Packaging, Benno Bischof: ”Our packaging is complicated. We have a large portfolio of products in many different formulations and dosages destined for markets around the world.” There are five filling and packaging facilities in the Vifor Pharma Group, consisting of around 20 lines, including highly complex, multipurpose units. Typically, each line handles relatively short runs – and every time the product changes, the line needs to be cleared and re-configured for the new product. In each case, there is a check-list of changeover procedures that can take a team of experienced operators anything up to two working days to complete. There are hundreds of separate operations to go through and the margin for error is zero. Skip one small step and the line won’t work until the error has been identified and corrected.

“No going back”

Today, the changeover process relies on paper-based instructions, so the operator is not hands-free for adjustments. It is inherently slow and prone to error, particularly when shifts change during the procedure. With the new system, each operator wears ‘smart glasses’ and can see the tasks as a 3D Hologram integrated in the real-world space, leaving them with both hands free. The most significant benefit is that the distribution of tasks is dynamic, the to-do list changing as each operation is ticked off. Members of the team can share the tasks between them depending on preference, sequence and availability. And nothing is missed, even if someone is absent for a moment, or the new shift arrives. The system allows for a much higher degree of flexibility and accuracy, enabling operators to do their job better and faster, even allowing for ever-increasing complexity.

So far, the results are living up to, even exceeding, expectations. In St Gallen, where the system has been used on the secondary packaging line for Ferinject® and Venofer® since the beginning of this year, changeover time has been reduced by more than 30% and it’s hoped that ultimately it will be almost halved. The site has already been able to reduce lead times by more than 50% and even to bring back packaging activities that were previously out-sourced to Asia as it is now faster, more flexible and cost efficient in St. Gallen.

Harder to quantify is the effect of minimising small procedural errors that would stop operations and take time to identify and resolve, but here too, the results are extremely positive. Since June, the system has also been installed in a packaging line in Villars-sur-Glâne where operators are taking to the new way of working with as much enthusiasm as their colleagues in St Gallen. “It takes time to get used to,” says Benno. “But once people get proficient with the system, there’s no going back!”

Vifor Pharma showing the way

This level of innovation has a halo effect on our company’s reputation. Benno and Goodly Innovations have been presenting the project at industry conferences for the past few months and they’re creating a great deal of interest. About 10 major global pharma companies have visited or will visit St Gallen to see what Vifor Pharma is up to. Some of them are now in the process of getting their own installations – but Vifor Pharma is still the only company to be using it on a daily basis as part of normal operations.

There is huge potential for intelligent, dynamic teamwork systems. Benno and his team have already started working with Goodly Innovations on an adapted application for line cleaning and clearing. There are also potential applications for training, maintenance or remote assistance. Regulatory compliance is another area that could benefit, for example, by integrating the system into a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and Electronic Batch Record. Goodly Innovations is currently piloting this concept with another pharma multinational and a leading MES provider, so we can expect to be able to benefit from this development soon.

In the meantime, work continues on further developing and optimising the guidance system for application to more complex filling and packaging lines. This is just the start for the Vifor Pharma Group and Augmented Reality. Benno is in no doubt: “Augmented Reality will fundamentally impact the way we work, making us faster, more precise and productive – and more collaborative.”