GlaxoSmithKline tanks clean profit

Lean and smart pharma tank cleaning boosts performance:time-saving processing methods, high yields and reliable cleaning for maximum patient safety are highly-focused areas for GlaxoSmithKline in Singapore that makes essential medicines for lung, viral and gut diseases.

DATE 2024-05-06 AUTHOR Evelyn Yap

Jurong, in the west of Singapore is the one spot that tourists don’t usually get to see. Although the island-state is just 682 sq km, and people zip around from one place to another in just 10 minutes, the western district stands almost isolated from the city beat.

Jurong is home to some of the world’s industrial giants. One of them is a leader in pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Active in 150 markets around the world, GSK is familiar to everyday consumers through products such as Aquafresh toothpaste and Panadol, one of the world’s most trusted pain relievers. As one of the world’s top ten pharmaceutical companies, medicines are GSK’s forte. In 2018, the group saw GBP30.8 bn (ca USD38bn) in sales turnover*, of which 75%* stemmed from their pharmaceutical and vaccine business.

Consistency for active compounds in bulk

The Jurong plant is one of two GSK sites in Singapore and one of 18 primary facilities that make bulk active pharmaceutical compounds around the world. The base compounds made at the Jurong plant are transported to GSK’s sites in Europe and the United States to be packaged and sold throughout the world. At the nine-hectare site, three production buildings manufacture the base compounds for 14 drugs such as Seretide/Advair, Flixotide and Combivir. Its 400 employees form part of the global GSK network living out its motto to make products that will get people to ‘do more, feel better, live longer’.

Continuous process improvement

The Jurong plant is home to Chang Chin Wai, Senior Operations Executive. “Plant cleaning is an essential part of our manufacturing process. I have a personal interest in ensuring that we are improving our processes all the time,” Chang says.

Making medicines affordable

Working between a bridge between R&D and manufacturing, is Dr Vijaya Kumar, Technical Development Manager, Strategic Process Technologies unit. He says, “We seek to bring in new technologies and equipment so that GSK can produce its medicines at a cheaper price to patients”. “We are driven by urgency,” he explains. “Because patients and diseases don’t wait. You could discover a wonderful drug tomorrow, which you could sell at a cheaper price. But it would be too late if thousands of patients with no access to affordable medicine were to die in the meantime”.           

In line with that, there are three top priorities: Consistent cleaning, good yield and time-savings.

Tank cleaning – a demanding task

Production at Jurong begins in the computer-controlled mixing vessels where the different chemicals are combined to make the base compounds for 14 different products. Each product is made in batches. The vessels must be thoroughly cleaned after each batch to avoid cross-contamination and ensure patient safety is not compromised.

Interbatch cleaning is therefore a critical task. The cleaning process involves spraying solvents or cleaning chemicals inside the vessels and then bringing the solvents up to the boil (or boil-outs). In the past, the plant used fixed spray balls to introduce solvents into the vessel.

However, it has been time-consuming and manual cleaning was required for some hard-to-reach spots. Chang says, “The fixed spray balls just wetted the surface of the vessel. There was insufficient force to physically remove material that was stuck to the internal wall. We needed something more effective.”

Efficient cleaning frees up resources

This is when Alfa Laval introduced its Rotary Jet Head tank cleaning solution to GSK. Installed permanently inside the vessel itself, the Rotary Jet Head rotates 360 degrees, delivering solvents at high impact onto the internal walls of the vessel to remove stubborn base powders or stray particles from the internal walls the vessels.

“Because the jet head goes on a 360-degree rotation on two axis, it will literally wash down all the walls on the vessel and all the build-up of powder,” says Chang. “Boil-outs in the mixing vessels are still required to clean the vapour lines and condensers but SaniJet 20 helps free up valuable resources and complies with the company culture of finding the leanest and simplest ways of doing things,” he adds.

Getting it right the first time

“When we first introduced this solution to GSK in 2001, we had just launched the SaniJet 20 for pharmaceutical use,” says Chow Tuck Sing, Sales Manager of the Equipment Division at Alfa Laval in Singapore.

“The design of the machine needed to comply with GSK’s safety, technical and GMP requirements so we collaborated closely with GSK on the final design to make sure it met their specific needs. The whole concept was based on our ‘Right First Time’ approach.”

Constant innovation…

Cross-applying the rotary jet head for pharmaceutical use was just one GSK innovation and Dr Kumar is busy working on more. “I’m trying to adapt a principle of wine purifying into drug purification so that we can make quality drugs at a reduced cost and supply them at a reduced price. It’s all in line with the call from the World Health Organisation for drug companies to reduce their prices, without compromising the quality of their products.”

… and long lasting cooperation

The Alfa Laval SaniJet 20 machine for tank cleaning is designed in accordance with the guidelines of the European Hygienic Design Group (EHEDG) and complies with the strictest requirements in terms of design, materials, finish and documentation.

The SaniJet 20’s self-cleaning ability has been tested and documented by the Institute of Biotechnology in Kolding, Denmark. Since 2001, more than 20 SaniJet 20 Rotary Jet Head units have been installed in all three GSK production buildings in Singapore. They have been successfully upgraded to Hastelloy versions to meet GSK’s increased demands on performance and corrosion resistance.


*retrieved from GSK 2018 annual report