Process Automation and Analytics Korean Industry Sets Sights on Biotech: How Process Analytics goes Gangnam-Style

Author / Editor: Dominik Stephan* / Dominik Stephan

From shipyards to life-sciences: Automation manufacturers benefit from Korea’s industrial transition – Since the 1960s, Korea has seen an unparalleled transition from an agricultural country to one of Asia’s technology trailblazers. The technological edge secured the “land of the morning calm” a place among the world’s leading shipuilders, cars and electronics manufacturers and plant engineering specialists. After the shipping crisis and the declining crude price, Korea’s multinationals have set their sighths of life-sciences and process engineering. To promote the transition from shipyards to lab-floor, process understanding and state of the art technology are becoming the key enablers.

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(Bild: Endress+Hauser; © eyetronic - stock.adobe.com)

Between K-Pop and Confucianism: South Korea, the Asian powerhouse at the Yellow Sea, is best known for the ongoing conflict with its Stalinist neighbor or hyped up rap musicians from Seoul’s scenester district Gangnam in the West. But the little country is in fact also the world’s eleventh largest economy.

Gone are the days in which the Korean peninsula was the “hermit Kingdom”, shrouded in secrets and seclude from the rest of the world. Today, cars, electronics, smartphones and flatscreens from the “Country of the morning calm” are in high demand worldwide. Korean multis are also among the leading shipbuilding and engineering firms.

Lesser known in Europe but in high demand in Asia are cosmetics and life-science products from Korea. The powders and cremes enjoy an excellent reputation due to the quality of raw materials and careful production. In terms of education levels, Koreans are among the world leaders: More than 70 % of young people are attending a university.

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After heavy industry, electronics and manufacturing, biotechnology booms in Korea: 53.5 billion Wong (ca. 40 million Euro) public spending is invested in Research & Development, 18.2 % of which for bio-projects. And that every year. That is more than in electronics or electrical engineering (15.1 %) and nearly as much as in IT (18.4 %).

Insights in an 18.6 Billion-Dollar Market

Korean companies have long since closed the gap on Western rivals and prepare their masterstroke with innovations galore: Although generics still account for 47 % of Korea’s pharmaceuticals market of 18.6 billion Dollar/year, companies like Hanmi, Boryung Pharm, Genexine or Viromed were able to sell licenses for 20 new developed drugs for a total of 9.3 billion Wong to international partners in 2014.

To help the pharmaceutical boom to make the leap from test tube and miscroscope to bi-business, seven biotech clusters are being established. On the forefront of this development is a leading electronics expert — and process analytic technology from “Old Europe”.

Incheon, Economic Powerhouse and Gateway to Seoul

From the rooftop of the G-Tower 150 meters above the ground one has a breathtaking view over the Yellow Sea and the street canyons of Incheon. The city with a population of 2.9-million just outside of Seoul is a hub for international trade with the second biggest port in Korea and a 20,938 hectares free economic zone.

Incheon is also home to one of the most ambitious projects of Korea’s high-tech-trailblazers Samsung: The country’s biggest multinational (“Jaebol” in Korean) plans to take the bio-pharmaceuticals crown with Samsung Biologics, formed in 2011 as a joint venture with Quintiles. In this process, the know-how acquired in IT and chip manufacturing should help in the manufacturing methods and processes, but also the corresponding technology. And this arrives at quite decisive position from Europe.

“We can offer high quality at competitive prices, since we save investment costs with one-off construction and operational technologies,” explains James Yoon, Vice-president of Samsung Biologics, the success strategy of South Koreans. “If our customers from the pharmaceutical industry outsource their production to us, we offer them complete service at favourable basic conditions.”

From product development to active component manufacturing: This should not only be cost-saving — and thus finally also help reduce the active ingredient prices — but also allow pharmaceutical companies the greatest possible flexibility, explains Chungwoo Lee, Samsung Biologics Vice President for the Facility Technology Team.

Biologicals on the Rise

The Koreans not only occupy an international growth market — also in the “land of morning calm”, pharmaceutical agents, cosmetics and life science products are booming. Particular attention is on Biologics, biotechnologically manufactured medicines (frequently from mammalian stem cells): By 2021, the global market should yield over 223.7 billion dollars to market analysts as a result and an average of 9.1 % per annum.

For comparison: Conventional medications based on chemical ingredient syntheses simply grow with around 2.6 %. In the future, it is hoped that at pharmaceutical companies, the biotechnology could also develop quite new ingredients against hitherto “incurable” diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson or cancer.

Electronics-Giant With Big Plans for Pharma

Until then, Samsung aims to become the biopharmaceutical world leader with the construction of a third production site in Songdo, within the Incheon Free-Economic-Zone. With 740 million dollars, the highly modern production called for some costs.

When production starts in 2018 at the company’s biggest site so far, Samsung’s operating bio-reactor capacity reaches a whopping 362,000 litres — significantly more than the current market leaders. At the moment, Samsung operates two production plants in Incheon with a combined capacity of 182000 liters in bioreactors for the cultivation of mammalian stem cells for pre-clinical production.

A demanding process — thus, it is important that all influential factors are kept under strenuous control. That means highest demands for process equipment as well: All measuring techniques meet the stringent requirements of US American Current Good Manufacturing Processes, cGMP.

For critical measuring units, such as temperature, pressure, flow rate and level as well as liquid analysis, instruments from the Swiss automation specialists Endress+Hauser are used. “Endress+Hauser were from the beginning — from the pilot plant to the commercial operation — essentially involved in the equipment of Samsung Biologics and could prevail in the contract for the process measuring technique against major competitors.

As stressed at Samsung, the service, which records the entire equipment runtime throughout the device provisioning, was decisive. “This reduces our risks and at the same time, maintains the operating performance consistently,” a spokesman of Samsung Biologics emphasises. At least 68 different device types are included in the list of the instrument delivered.

Automation Expertise for the World's Biggest Biologicals Project

Apart from technological expertise, the automation experts had another card up their sleeve, Samsung confirms: The Endress+Hauser service, which covers the whole unit lifetime. “This reduces our risks while keeping production up-and-running,” a Samsung speaker stated. Teams of E+H are concerned with the calibration, maintenance and repairs of the measuring technology; hence all processes can operate free of interruption as well as in a particularly hygienic and safe manner — which is nowhere as important as it is in the pharmaceutical industry.

Especially in Korea, where trust in business relations plays a key role, it is important that the customers are not left out in the rain, Tony Jacobsen, Corporate Director Regional Sales at Endress+Hauser for the sales region of Asia/Pacific, explains.

From Workbench to Lab

The interest that Samsung, a world leader in consumer electronics, shows in biotech and GMOs is representative of the ongoing transition of the whole Korean industry: From workbench to lab, from laboratory to process. Currently, Endress+Hauser still makes the lion’s share of its sales of 62,700 million Wong with orders from the chemical industry (23 %), shipbuilding (19 %) or as a supplier of consumer branches. Especially the outfitting of the floating refinery Pazflor with 1,200 E+H measuring devices caused a stir in the industry. After all, this humongous FPSO processes 220,000 barrels of crude oil day in, day out — all out on the high seas of the African coast.

Shipyards to Life-Sciences

Experts estimate that 85 billion barrels of crude still lie buried beneath the seabed, far of the coast of Angola, Western Africa. But digging for buried treasures sometimes proves tricky, especially when they are as secluded as this one. It lies in depths between 600 and 1,200 meters below the South Atlantic.

The efforts to drill for offshore, deep sea oil is significant: As the field lies far off the mainland, first preparation and conversion steps are done at sea. Floating Production, Storage and Offloading Units (FPSO) are huge, swimming process facilities, with sizes that put aircraft carriers to shame. The Pazflor-FPSO measures 325 meters with a displacement of 120.000 tons (for comparison: a fully loaded and equipped US Navy Nimitz-class carrier stands at 97.000 tons) and storage capacities for 1.9 million barrels of oil and petroleum products make it one of the largest ships ever. This mega-scale floating refinery was built at Daewoo Shipbuilding, Korea’s third largest shipyard. But it’s Endress+Hauser technology that keeps an eye on one of the most critical key processes.

Crude oil, once it is drilled from the reservoir, is mixed with water, sand and natural gas, which are then separated in big separation tanks — but the border layer between oil and water is hardly recognizable from outside the vessel. This is a specialty of the radiometric level measurement Profile Vision by E+H: By measuring the medium density, it enables a three dimensional image of the vessel interior for maximum possible selectivity and accuracy. This is especially important as water could disturb the further downstream steps — or, even worse, crude oil could be disposed off at sea along with the water.

Currently, EPC projects account for 23 % of E+H’s Korean sales. Life Sciences, which are responsible for 3 % of bookings, play a minor role — but this is about to change with the new company strategy 2020+, the E+H believes. To counter the difficulties that petrochemical projects and shipbuilding are facing, Endress+Hauser’s Korean management focus on diversification and a strengthening of domestic sales to decouple from international market developments.

A part of this new strategy is — apart from focusing on seven core industries — the expansion of the process analytics business and the integration laboratory analysis solutions into existing value chains. A major step to this direction was the acquisition of Analytik Jena: The integration of the laboratory supplier allows E+H to provide their expertise also to research and development facilities and institutes while the core brand E+H focuses on production processes.

From process to the lab and back: This move comes in line of a trend started in 2012 with the acquisition of Spectra Systems and the takeover of the Raman-spectroscopy experts Kaiser Optical Systems the following. Now, solutions from a single source shall help users from academics and laboratory research via process development in technical centers or pilot plants down to production processes and quality control. Two sides of the same coin — but all of one piece.

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