Faster pharmaceuticals

Medications from Pfizer, urgently needed to help people get healthy and enjoy a good quality of life, must be continuously available to patients worldwide in consistent quality. To ensure this is the case, Pfizer is further automating and digitalizing the production of tablets and capsules at its Freiburg site. 

“We are making good progress toward Industrie 4.0,” says Michael Becker, who heads Global Engineering at Pfizer in Germany. Without digitalization the current project would not have been possible.


At the production facility in Freiburg, data is recorded and analyzed at billions of points every millisecond. The data is used by the control system, which makes it possible to respond directly to the measurement results. “Quality is measured continuously, and the control system responds directly,” comments Becker. No more testing in the lab, and no need even for sampling. Everything runs automatically.

Close to the “dream of every pharmacist”

Becker describes the dream of every pharmacist like this: “You put in all the ingredients at the start of the process, and out comes a finished capsule at the end.” With Continuous Manufacturing Technology (CMT), Pfizer is a little closer to making that dream a reality. The food and beverage industry led the way, and employees at Pfizer in Groton, Connecticut, USA, developed continuous manufacturing technology on that basis. CMT is now being introduced around the world, including in Freiburg.


It makes production much faster and more flexible. In recent years, Becker has noticed that demand for medications is fluctuating more and more. Pfizer’s Freiburg location used to need up to four months to adjust to changes in volume. “But thanks to CMT, we now can just make a small adjustment in order for the plant to run faster or slower,” says Becker. “In other words, you can adapt to a new market situation in a matter of minutes.”

MES as the central element

The Manufacturing Execution System (MES) assumes a key role in the IT and automation project for Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in Freiburg: It forms the link between the process control system and the Electronic Batch Record (EBR) system that documents production electronically, manages all of the equipment and the process chains, and integrates all higher and lower-level systems to form an end-to-end solution for data recording and processing.


The automation solution is based on Simatic IT. To control the new plant units, the project team used powerful, high-availability Simatic S7 controllers and a Simatic WinCC SCADAsystem to visualize the processes. In addition to the shelf servicing unit in the high-rack store, which uses a Simatic S7-1500 as its head PLC, a vertical conveyor was also incorporated in the new MES solution to supply the equipment on the first and second floors with bulk and granulate containers. The individual systems work together seamlessly and enable the processes to function smoothly.


Optimized logistics

When Pfizer decided to expand production using a new, continuous plant, it also needed the systems for material transport and production control to be on a uniform platform.


This meant that many production stages and a shelf servicing unit with 120 big bag spaces had to be integrated in the automated material transport and process automation systems. The new buildings for continuous manufacturing were also fitted with automated systems for continuous weighing and production as well as with an electronic process documentation system.

The environment is also one of the winners

“Pfizer always considers the environment,” says Becker. “We adopt an end-to-end view and try to include environmentally friendly systems in our processes as much as possible.” In this project alone, the transportation of raw materials by truck was cut by almost 50 percent. Solar thermal systems dry the air needed for production, LEDs provide lighting throughout the building, and the heat and cooling resulting from processes is recovered.

Working in Germany as a high-wage country

One question Becker is regularly asked is whether it’s worthwhile to invest in automated and digitalized production in a high-wage country like Germany. “Germany is a highly educated country,” he observes. “Our employees are very well qualified to operate and also to understand automated systems. And thus, with a high level of automation in place, we can manufacture just as efficiently here as in a country with lower wage costs – perhaps even more so.”

Many efficiency gains

Thanks to its new automation and digitalization solution, Pfizer can now continuously monitor all processes at its Freiburg location and thus further improve its quality standards. The processes are more flexible than previously and can be better adapted to current requirements. Digital process administration and documentation also provides valuable information to continuously improve production efficiency in Freiburg.


The data from the processes can be used to verify process and product quality online, as well as plant performance, using process-oriented indicators. As a result, medications can be approved and released more swiftly.


Taking this a step further, this also means that technologies and processes at different locations can be analyzed and compared against each other – an important aspect for a globally operating company. In addition, new products and processes can be developed jointly and brought to market maturity. 

Smooth production for patients

The tablets and capsules from Freiburg are used for treating cancer, pain, and heart ailments in patients. “We always have in the back of our minds that production is there to serve the patients, and is not just for the sake of the technology or any organization,” Becker notes. That is why quality is his top priority, followed by security of supply. “No patient should be left waiting for any of our products.”


Many things can change for people when they get sick; it is often the start of a difficult journey. More than 10,000 researchers and approximately 97,000 employees are working at Pfizer to help people on this journey. They develop, produce, and distribute innovative medicines and vaccines as well as some of the world’s most widely known over-the-counter products. Headquartered in New York, the company generated revenues of $52.8 billion in fiscal 2016. In Germany, Pfizer currently employs more than 2,000 employees at three locations: Berlin, Freiburg, and Karlsruhe.

Pfizer’s drug manufacturing facility in Freiburg was established by Gödecke and Co. in 1866. From the late 1920s, it belonged to the U.S.-based William W. Warner Company, which later became Warner-Lambert. The location has belonged to Pfizer since the merger of Pfizer and the Warner-Lambert Group in 2000. Freiburg is now the largest packing location for solid medications and a strategic production facility for Pfizer globally, with a particular focus on development and market launch of new tablets and capsules.

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