This successful initiative in the US shows how an exercise to streamline operations involving different functions in the business has led to significant process improvements


Improving the efficiency of our processes is an essential part of our sustainability drive to save resources. One successful initiative in the US shows how an exercise to streamline operations involved different functions in the business and led to significant process improvement.

Johnson Matthey's Pharmaceutical Materials and Services business provides active pharmaceutical ingredients to the pharmaceutical industry. One ingredient, hydrocodone, is used in pain relief products and for treating coughs.

As the production of hydrocodone started to increase it became clear that some equipment (reactors) was lying idle during production. The principal bottleneck of the process was hydration of the final product and so a project team was formed to understand the causes and eliminate equipment downtime.

The answer lay in improving the moisture control system. The project kicked off with a 'measure and analysis' phase where the team explored the water absorption rate of hydrocodone and how efficiently moisture was introduced into the hydration process. Precision is all: too much water and the material turns grey and the batch will be rejected; not enough water and the problem will be one of residual solvent levels and extended cycle times.

This was a case of employee input from all the functions with Engineering, Production and Research providing the technical data, Production and Automation simplifying the programming and Commercial, Quality and Operations keeping external customers informed.

The analysis conducted in this phase led to two minor capital projects. In the first a local PLC (programmable logic controller – a tiny computer) on the centrifuge section of the equipment, which did not provide the operator with enough information, was replaced with a more user friendly interface. The second project was to install electrical heated lines and instrumentation so that the moisture in and out of the hydration system could be tightly controlled.

So what was the upshot of the changes? Now that hydration times were better controlled and, as a consequence much faster, the reactors could be put to greater use. With the process equipment properly utilised, the batch sizes were increased as confidence in the new system grew.

The figures sum up the story. Hydration time was cut by 60% and the reactor cycle time by 20%. In turn, this has meant that the processing equipment time and energy use were reduced by 68%. The original process was capable only of producing 5.6 metric tonnes a year at full stretch but the improved process now requires only 32% of the reactor and dryer capacity to reach an equivalent output, reducing manufacturing costs by 24% and opening up capacity to make other products and / or more hydrocodone.

The project makes an important contribution to Sustainability 2017 and its goal of halving key resources per unit of output. The key resources here, which are production equipment time and energy use, have been more than halved and a 3% increase in yield achieved. Reduced costs and increased overall production also contribute to the sustainability goal of doubling the earnings per share.