Pharmaceutical Plant Engineering How Ima Pharma Plans to Lead in the Turnkey Business

From Anke Geipel-Kern |

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Many suppliers in the pharmaceutical production industry want to move away from individual machines and towards complete systems, even though the turnkey segment is just as competitive. In this interview by PROCESS PharmaTEC, Thomas Fricke, Commercial Director at Ima Pharma, reveals the company’s competitive positioning, where he sees the company’s strengths and why he needs to keep a close eye on Chinese competitors.

Thomas Fricke has been Commercial Director at IMA Pharma since 2021. Since 2011 he has been Sales and Marketing Director for pharmaceutical and cosmetic packaging at IMA Safe.
Thomas Fricke has been Commercial Director at IMA Pharma since 2021. Since 2011 he has been Sales and Marketing Director for pharmaceutical and cosmetic packaging at IMA Safe.
(Source: IMA Group)

“All-In-One Pharma”: the new slogan with which Ima Pharma appeared at this year’s Achema sends a message of self-confidence to the pharmaceutical market and the firm’s competitors alike. Thomas Fricke’s initial statements underline this confidence and leave little doubt that the company sees itself well positioned versus the competition. For him, it is easier to tell a customer what Ima cannot supply than to explain everything it has developed to create complete processing and packaging lines.


Fricke, who studied mechanical engineering and has been with Ima for 30 years, knows the pharmaceutical market and its transformations inside out. As Sales Manager at Ima Germany and later as Managing Director of the same subsidiary, he built up the sales and after-sales business.

In the past, it was difficult to sell Italian pharmaceutical equipment in Germany. But that situation has changed completely — not least because Ima was not above serving pharmaceutical SMEs, which occasionally felt cold-shouldered by other packaging suppliers. The decisive factor was the establishment of a large decentralized service network with native German speakers who could answer technicians’ questions at the machine, even in deepest Bavaria, says Fricke. “Our customers can rely on us 100%”.

Successful Thanks to Comprehensive Support

The international service network is an important success factor for the Ima Group —  not only in pharmaceuticals, but also in the food, cosmetics and consumer sectors. And it is the result of numerous acquisitions and mergers that have enabled Ima to grow extremely fast since it was founded in 1961. This strategy has paid off, as each company acquired brings with it a new distribution network and access to customer potential. Thomas Engineering, a U.S. manufacturer of tablet coating equipment, was added as recently as May 2021. The acquisition expands the company’s presence in the North American market.

“We have technicians all over the world, even in politically troubled countries,” Fricke adds. Coronavirus has now taken the service business to another level. In China, for example, in the past a team of Italian specialists would have had to fly in to set up a high-speed system. Today, support can be provided remotely. The service team in Tianjin consist of 50 employees who work more or less independently, with “fantastic response times,” according to Fricke.

Competitors Never Sleep

Despite these structural advantages, the company still finds the market tight, and customer relationships are the be-all and end-all in the industry. Ima is in a permanent technological head-to-head race with machine manufacturers in Germany’s Swabian “packaging valley”. However, the company now sees itself on an equal footing with Optima, Syntegon, Bausch+Ströbel, Groninger and Uhlmann, and in some cases even ahead, Fricke says.

This applies especially to the systems business, which is now common practice in the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical customers rarely ask for individual machines, more often for complete systems, Fricke says. Here he considers Ima to have a clear advantage, because hardly any gaps remain in the Group’s product range. “We take on turnkey solutions for the customer: complete coordination, project planning, organization, FAT, installation and then service. Others try to do that, but there is no one who can offer our portfolio.” In fact, Ima is now so well established, that “we’re involved in all sorts of projects, because there aren’t many providers who can offer and live by the principle of everything from a single source — All-In-One — in the way we do,” Fricke emphasizes.

System Solutions Are a Major Part of the Business

This applies, among other things, to the sterile applications offered by Ima Life and the packaging solutions from Ima Safe. 80% of the parenteral business is in complete lines, from the denester and washer to the freeze dryer, partly because the process generally does not allow any interruptions.

Fricke cites Ima Safe as the Group’s second-largest area, accounting for 60% of system solutions. A new Ima Safe plant has just been built so that complete lines can be set up for factory acceptance tests. Ima Active is also following suit, driven by oncological preparations, an area in which the company is recording major sales growth.

Here, for example, it is a question of containment: “We can supply everything from weighing to mixing, granulating, pressing and coating, ending with the blister machine,” says the Commercial Director. Capsule fillers are on offer, too.

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One trend in particular is playing into the Italians’ hands: Big Pharma has been outsourcing entire divisions for years, concentrating instead on research and marketing and the production of complex medicines. “In some cases, pharmaceutical companies are shrinking their purchasing departments by half,” Fricke explains. “Engineering departments are being reduced too. Instead, they are relying on consultants.” But while the consultants are good at advising and informing, they take no responsibility for the subsequent functioning of the plant. Ima, on the other hand, as a turnkey supplier understands what the customer really wants and takes responsibility for the plant and how it functions.

Why Supply Bottlenecks Affect Ima Less Than Others

Fricke sees the availability of electronic components as the greatest challenge for all suppliers. Pharmaceutical production has become highly automated and supply bottlenecks are not limited to the electronics and automotive industries. Cables, terminals, plugs, switches, PC modules and power supply units are all needed to equip pharmaceutical machines. Those who buy in large quantities have a clear advantage. Ima’s purchasing is centralized at the headquarters in Bologna and, thanks to annual sales of about 1.7 billion euros, has considerable clout. This is another reason why, even in the current situation, Ima can largely meet standard delivery times, “because we are more interesting as a customer for our suppliers and component manufacturers.”

Another factor that is driving business is the tendency of pharmaceutical companies to harmonize the operation of their production facilities internationally and to define global machine standards. For pharmaceutical manufacturers, this means more uniformity in purchasing, lower purchase prices and reduced warehousing. It also makes it much easier for manufacturers to transfer drugs within plants, because production parameters can be transferred more easily. Anyone who, like Ima, can establish themselves as a “preferred supplier” has usually hit the jackpot.

China Wants to Move Away From the Workbench Image — What Does This Mean for Pharmaceutical Suppliers?

The pharmaceutical business is international: North America, Europe, the BRIC countries, Asia. Like most pharmaceutical machinery manufacturers, Ima is strongly export-oriented. Fricke keeps a close eye on international markets, and what he sees there only makes him partially happy. In his opinion, the increasing protectionism of some countries is distorting competition and making imports more expensive. One example is Brazil: if you sell a machine there that can also be manufactured locally, as an importer you pay 20% more.

The Chinese market is becoming a real challenge. For some time now, Chinese machine builders have been catching up with European ones or buying up know-how and market access. Prominent examples are the sale of Kuka to the Chinese electronics giant Midea, and that of Putzmeister to Sany a few years earlier. Since 2017, a pharmaceutical machinery manufacturer has also been owned by a Chinese group. When Truking absorbed Romaco in 2017, the industry was turned upside down because no-one knew what would become of the Karlsruhe-based company. Now other Chinese pharmaceutical machine manufacturers are pushing into the European market: Tofflon, for example, wants to establish itself in Germany and was putting out feelers at Achema. The Chinese are bringing money with them, buying in know-how and employees in a targeted manner, observes Fricke.

Since the Chinese government has been pursuing its “Made in China 2025” strategy, many foreign machine manufacturers have become even more alert. Know-how drain has always been an issue, says Fricke, but in 2015, China defined pharmaceutical production as a strategic focus and is working to become independent of foreign producers. Domestic authorities therefore expect at least one local supplier to bid in tenders for turnkey projects. “In the best case, it is the company’s own subsidiary,” explains Fricke. Ima is therefore investing in its own Chinese production, so as to be prepared for future requirements.

Standards and Sustainability — Key Business Drivers

Now the Group is also addressing the topic of sustainability, based around Ima Zero. “The supplier should help pharmaceutical companies to become sustainable,” explains Fricke. This means reducing packaging material and energy consumption, as well as ensuring compliance along the supply chain.

Developments in this field are the task of the “OPENLab”, where Ima’s technicians work together with scientists; for example, on machine solutions that can process new, sustainable packaging materials. Among other things, they are working on alternatives to blister foils, which are currently made of composite plastics but could just as easily be produced from monomaterials. Ima is currently working on paper blisters and is talking to pharmaceutical companies about possible applications. Moreover, the new Ima Safe plant is the first to be completely energy-neutral, which is a milestone in the Company’s development. That’s just one more reason why Ima is convinced that it is well equipped for the future.