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“Sometimes we manage to do the nearly impossible”

The manufacturing of drugs and diagnostic products requires seamless production processes that are fully automated. This is where the innovation pioneers from Manufacturing Service & Technology at the high-tech campus in Mannheim come in. Ronald Hofstadt and Andreas Trapp, technology experts with a passion, discuss their flagship projects, setbacks, and the value of global cooperation.

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What is the main focus of Roche Manufacturing Service & Technology?

Ronald Hofstadt: Answering our key question: how can I turn manual production into automated production? We work to develop solutions that can't simply be bought off the rack. Our main focus is the initial development of an automation process. And we do this through simultaneous engineering. With this approach we use functional models – a tabletop model of sorts – very early on in the process to document the feasibility of the most complex processes. We also conduct feasibility studies. At the same time, our team is building the machines, which helps us save

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What are some of your current flagship projects?

Hofstadt:We built a fully automated disposable dispenser for our colleagues from Tissue Diagnostics in Tucson, Arizona. These dispensers apply a test substance to the tissue to assist in the detection of cancer. The dispensers are built from 14 tiny parts. No one in the market was ready to take on this highly complex automation job. For this project we relied once more on simultaneous engineering. First, we checked for feasibility by looking at every substep of the functional model needed to ensure a fully automated assembly process. At the same time, we developed the corresponding system, which is standing in our facilities in Tucson today.

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Another highlight…

… would have to be the cobas Plasma Separation Card. The card makes it possible to send HIV test results from remote regions in developing countries to labs at ambient temperatures.

Trapp: That's correct. The machines on which the cards are produced were developed in Mannheim. The cobas Plasma Separation Card wouldn't exist without this in-house development. All in all, this project is the result of incredible teamwork. In Mannheim alone, employees from various departments pulled together to achieve a common goal. And this resulted in a fruitful exchange with colleagues at the Rotkreuz and Pleasanton sites as well. But I am truly proud of something entirely different.

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Was exactly makes you proud?

Trapp: The team worked tirelessly – for a good cause. By developing the PSC, we are able to help break a vicious circle. With valid test results, which are ensured by this card, an expectant mother with AIDS can be treated so that she will not infect her child..

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Do you ever have setbacks in your work?

Trapp: Setbacks are unavoidable. But feasibility studies are there for a reason. They help us prevent big mistakes in the development phase. Nevertheless, the inventor in me was recently put to the test when I was asked to automate older machines used to fill containers with drugs. The systems were doing their job, however they could not demonstrate 100% automated fill level inspection. We found a very technically complex solution that was met with enthusiastic support by the manufacturers. However, we ultimately decided that a new machine would pay off more in the end. On the one hand it was a pity, but on the other hand it was understandable. When in doubt, the modern system is the better choice.

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Does Manufacturing Service & Technology in Mannheim have a special place in the Roche world?

Hofstadt: Each value-added innovation we develop is a result of close cooperation with the departments that ask for our help. We see ourselves as part of the bigger picture. Thanks to our network and the high-tech campus in Mannheim, we have so much expertise that we sometimes manage to do the nearly impossible. Accu-Chek Mobile is a good example. In this case, a test area must be attached to a thin strip using a fully automated process. All of the labelling companies told us it would never work. And that got us thinking. We couldn't simply give up, so we took on the challenge. And what can I say? It worked!

Global Structure of Roche

Do you benefit from Roche's global structure?

Hofstadt: Absolutely. We also welcome it when colleagues question the German engineers. After all, we have top-notch people around the world. In Germany we often approach innovation from a very technical point of view. Now and again, a more pragmatic approach will also do the trick.

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What about the impact of up-and-coming engineers? Can Roche still find suitable applicants when there are few with the skills you are looking for?

Hofstadt: The demographic change affects us just as much as it does other companies. One of our challenges is to communicate that Roche offers extremely exciting and multi-faceted projects for engineers. This is something that is not well known in this target group. That is why we are working closely with dual system universities in the region to find students enrolled in study-work programs. We are also looking for engineers with a higher level of professional experience. We address this group specifically through trade magazines, at trade fairs, or in networks.

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Roche is now well established through these channels. How did you get involved with Roche?

Trapp: After I moved to Mannheim I worked for another large company in the region for five years. I used to drive by Boehringer, Roche's predecessor company in Mannheim, and say to myself, "Looks great, but a company like that doesn't need someone like me." A few years later a friend of mine convinced me otherwise. The opportunities here were and still are endless.

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