Sanofi’s shift to robots and ‘digital twins’ at U.S. biologics site costs 95 jobs

Sanofi is investing more than $300 million in its Framingham, Massachusetts, plant as it continues a global manufacturing transformation that at some plants leans heavily on robots and digital processes. But more robots translates into fewer people and so the company will cut nearly 100 jobs at the site even as it expands capacity.

Sanofi spokeswoman Ashleigh Koss confirmed today that 95 employees will be let go even as the facility adds capacity, a byproduct of the manufacturing streamlining.

“This transformation at our Framingham sites will streamline our operations, and we are adjusting staffing levels at the site accordingly,” a company statement said. “Employees who are affected will receive severance benefits and outplacement assistance.”

The cuts in Framingham come weeks after the French drugmaker announced it would lay off 130 workers at a plant in the Boston suburb of Allston, Massachusetts. In that case, Sanofi decided to outsource some of the production process as well as make technology upgrades.

While robotics has been migrating into pharma plants for some years, the French drugmaker has made the transition to so-called digital plants a manufacturing priority, financing the transition with some of the €4.7 billion ($5.51 billion) it has invested to build out its production capacities in the last five years.

Sanofi is incorporating digital processes into the new biologics plants that it is building, but also decided to retrofit its key biologics plants in Framingham and Geel, Belgium to use the cutting-edge processes. That includes collaborative robots, or “cobots,” that work next to humans for some processes, and autonomous mobile robots that can travel along digital pathways to deliver ingredients and equipment.

Processes in Framingham are all paperless, and by exploiting flexible facility design, much of the same equipment can be used to produce a variety of products.

Each of its supermodern plants has a 3D computer model of the actual plant, called a “digital twin,” that monitors all of the data and provides plant managers with a real-time view that allows them to make adjustments on the fly.

In Geel, the French drugmaker says it has installed sensors that measure more than 5,000 parameters along the production process and generate over 1 billion data points in every single manufacturing cycle. Those can be analyzed to quickly spot and correct issues to keep yields high and to allow for predictive maintenance on equipment.

Some of this design came from Sanofi's internal experts, but it is also working with startups in areas such as drone technology, operational analytics and artificial intelligence. One of those, iObeya, was key in providing digital visual management tools.

The company has also been preparing its workforce for this brave new world of manufacturing, sending more than 1,100 employees in the last three years through training that steeps them with a “digital mindset and capability.”

May 10, 2018

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