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René de Jong, Senior Manager Engineering at Astellas Pharma:

“We challenge each other to continue to work at a high level”

In its almost ninety-year history, Unica has evolved from a regional installation company to a nationally operating technical service provider that can take on the most complex technological challenges. The modular projects that Unica carries out as preferred supplier for Astellas Pharma are a good example. Astellas Pharma is an international pharmaceutical company with more than 18,000 employees worldwide. There are two locations in the Netherlands. The production of medicines takes place in Meppel in strictly regulated clean-room environments.

René de Jong has been working at Astellas Pharma since 2012. As Senior Manager Engineering, his role includes implementing project-based, utility-related changes and ensuring that medicines can be produced under the right conditions. And there’s a lot to take into account here.

Primary process

First of all, Astellas Pharma needs to be able to guarantee supply. René: “We make medicines that are crucial for patients, which means that we have to be able to guarantee they can be supplied. We therefore do everything we can to protect the primary process. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, only employees who contribute directly to the production process are permitted to access the location in Meppel, for example. All other colleagues have been working from home for almost a year now.”

The numerous extremely strict laws and regulations form a second challenge for the pharmaceutical company. “Everything has to be traceable,” says René “That applies to the installations too. If you are building a house and one of the pipes is too long, you just cut it down to size. That’s unthinkable here; we can’t just change something in our systems.”

Time pressure

René can explain just how complex working for a pharmaceutical company like Astellas Pharma can be for a technical service provider with one simple practical example. “In order to change the insulation on the cooling pipes, you have to put the installation out of service. If you don’t, the pipes will condense as soon as you remove the insulation and then you won’t be able to glue the new insulation in place. But our factory usually runs 24 hours a day. That means that there is a very limited amount of time in which to carry out the work in accordance with all the rules that apply. The pressure is enormous. And as if that wasn’t enough, in our organisation there are also separate departments, each with their own interests. Such as our technical service department, which becomes the owner of the systems once they are supplied.”

Qualified

Until 2014, Astellas Pharma worked with another supplier, which was unable to meet the strict requirements. “We were looking for a new supplier nearby with experience in the pharmaceutical industry, but that was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says René. “We had worked with Unica a couple of times, but they didn’t have much experience in our sector. We still decided to go with Unica though, because we were convinced that they understood straight away exactly what would be expected of them. Unica also has qualified employees throughout the country, including close to us.”

Despite all the best intentions, it took a little while to get the cooperation on track. René: “Making sure everyone had a grasp of all the safety rules was a long process, but we did it. Both parties put in a lot of time and effort and that is now paying off.”

Unica has developed to become a strong player in the pharmaceutical industry

Regular team

Astellas Pharma has a single contact person at Unica and a permanent team of engineers, who know their way around the company and all the rules. “That works really well,” says René. “There are always a few Unica employees around. Unica even has its own on-site storage and break room. That’s convenient, especially when multiple people are working on large projects.”

The refurbishment of the Q-lab, the quality laboratory, was such a large and complex job. At the moment, a factory hall is being converted to office space. Other projects have been postponed due to Covid-19. “We never expected it to last so long,” says René. “Time is running out. Systems are getting older, which means the risk of technical malfunctions is increasing. So let’s hope that we can start making progress soon.”

High level

Looking back at the collaboration with Unica, René is proudest of the refurbishment of the ‘gowning area’ or changing room. “This was a unique project that was completed successfully and during which we learnt a lot from one another. The great thing about the cooperation between Astellas Pharma and Unica is the fact that both parties have a huge amount of knowledge, which we can share with one another. We have developed a really strong partnership over recent years. Unica has become a strong player in the pharmaceutical industry, specialised in creating ‘controlled environments’. We are very happy with Unica’s work. Of course there are always improvements to be made, but we are able to discuss things directly and honestly with each other. Astellas Pharma and Unica are a great match and challenge each other to continue to operate at a high level.”