Innovative Approach

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-By Kristy Attard

Many companies today seem to be outsourcing almost everything, having it produced overseas. One contract manufacturer based in Moorebank NSW, however, is doing the opposite with an exciting new development. Sphere Healthcare has recently installed a canning line for infant formula to meet demand from the Chinese market eager for a high quality Australian product. “It’s just one line at this stage,” says Quality Director Peter Kissane, “but we’ve got two major customers in China and they’re already talking about potentially purchasing and providing us with a second line to meet the volumes that they’re anticipating needing.” Sphere Healthcare gives us an inside look at what it takes to enable people all over the world to lead healthier lifestyles.

Quality Matters

The Chinese public has largely lost confidence in its country’s infant formula due to a number of incidents over the years. In 2008, two men were sentenced to death over the melamine milk scare, which killed six babies and left 300,000 ill. The toxic contaminant melamine, normally used to manufacture Formica and Laminex, was found in infant formula. “It was only put in there because it gave a false high reading for protein. Someone testing that product doing a simple test for protein would say, ‘Oh yeah, this product is really high in protein,” when it wasn’t protein at all.” This shocking incident, where the health of the public was put at risk, was unfortunately not an isolated case.

There have been a number of other scares in China over the years involving contaminated milk products and unscrupulous dealings leaving the public furious. “There was another case where ethylene glycol – which is antifreeze – had been substituted for glycerol and again that resulted in a number of people becoming sick,” relates Mr Kissane. Factories sometimes manufacture counterfeit products claiming to be infant formula, which are actually just skim milk powder. It is hardly surprising that the Chinese public is willing to buy infant formula from an Australian company with an unblemished reputation for quality; there is a suspicion with many consumers that products made in China fail to meet the same standards of those made in Australia.

Whilst attending trade shows in China, Sphere Healthcare was approached by potential customers enquiring about the company’s manufacturing capabilities; they were particularly interested in canned infant formula. A canning line was later installed to produce canned infant formula for export to China, opening up a new avenue for growth.

The new canning line requires five people to run it, and it is an interesting process to watch. Empty cans are put onto an accumulation table. One scoop is dropped into each can before being loaded up with formula from a filling station. A check weighing system then ensures that the correct weight of product has been put into each can, rejecting any cans that are over or underweight. Lids are then loosely put on with a clincher. The cans then pass into a gas box or chamber where air is evacuated and replaced with nitrogen. After that, the lids are seamed – installed tightly. A resealer is packed on top and finally the cans are put on a shipper. Conveyors connect the various pieces of equipment, with the cans moving between three rooms as they go through the process.

When it comes to pharmaceutical products, both local and global customers have very high standards and are not prepared to accept anything less. Mr Kissane believes that if Australian customers see product of inferior quality they are inclined to suspect that it has been imported from overseas where quality standards in manufacturing are lower. “It’s no secret that over the last 20 years most pharmaceutical manufacturing plants in Australia have closed, as the large pharmaceutical multinationals have exited Australia from a manufacturing viewpoint, followed by a few local companies.” However, there is still a manufacturing base here in Australia, particularly to support the large number of local customers developing and marketing products for their own businesses. Although Sphere Healthcare is a large scale business, with overseas as well as Australian customers, Mr Kissane comments that working with Australian customers is made easier by the fact that the company premises are based in Australia.

High Standards

Pharmaceutical manufacturing is a challenging area of the manufacturing sector, and highly regulated. As Quality Director, Mr Kissane works with all levels of the business right across the plant from procurement, planning, production and testing through to quality control, quality assurance and R&D. “The most important thing, I think, is to make sure that we are always producing product of the highest possible quality,” he comments. Along with internal controls, continuously engaging with customers and suppliers – ensuring that consumer needs are being met and that quality is assured at every step in the supply chain – plays an important role in upholding the company’s strong reputation for quality.

Sphere Healthcare operates under GMP and is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. There are meticulous customer audits and this year, the US Food and Drug Administration performed an audit on the company. Sphere Healthcare has stringent standards and an uncompromising attitude toward quality. “I think you’ll find all employees say it’s a different sort of work environment to a lot of other manufacturing where all you have to do is make the product and that’s it,” says Mr Kissane. “We not only have to make the product, we have to keep and maintain documentation that supports everything that we’ve done through the whole manufacturing process.” Documenting manufacturing processes from start to finish can be the most challenging part of the business, but it is extremely important.

Sphere Healthcare boasts an impressive formulation library with over 4000 different products. There is a sharp focus on attention to detail, making sure work is done right the first time and satisfying customer needs. “We produce a large variety of products each month so everyone here is involved in a variety of work. It’s not a case that we churn out the same product day after day.” As an example, Sphere Healthcare is proud to be one of the largest suppliers of soft gelatine capsules in the Asia Pacific region. Using form fill seal technology, a liquid is sealed inside a gelatine shell. “We also do two-piece hard shell capsules which generally have a powder inside the capsule. The capsule is pulled apart to be filled with the powder and then reassembled.” In addition to soft and hard gelatine capsules, Sphere manufactures creams, liquids, ointments, powders and a whole range of tablets including conventional, coated and soluble effervescent.

Developing innovations that make a real difference is a key focus at Sphere Healthcare. The business has been streamlining its manufacturing processes for its 185 or so employees by implementing improved systems. In the last couple of years Sphere has introduced SAP as its MRP (Materials Resources Planning) system. The laboratory utilises a LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System), InfoLab. There is also a CDS (Computerised Dispensing System), Wayahead, in operation. It is only by adhering rigidly to robust systems such as these that the right formulations, tested appropriately, can be delivered to the customer on time, every time.

Healthier Living

Sphere Healthcare strives to enable healthier lifestyles with its extensive range of quality products made in Australia. Success means repeat orders from customers and meeting or exceeding their expectations for quality. “Consumers can have confidence in products manufactured in Australia and expect safety, effectiveness and good value for money.”

Part of the future direction at Sphere will be maximising the output in the various product categories in which it operates. Infant formula canning is really a part of powder filling which was already under the company’s purview. Sphere Healthcare plans to be just as innovative and forward thinking across the board, focusing on tablets, soft gel capsules and liquids in particular. Obtaining and providing as much capacity in those areas as possible not only benefits customers with improved products, but also keeps overheads low by maximising equipment utilisation.

The R&D team at Sphere Healthcare is continually seeking new product ideas and concepts to present to customers that deliver on quality and effectiveness. Due to consumer need, the pharmaceutical market has been fairly resilient to the global financial crisis. “We’ve not seen a major downturn in business and sales and we find that overall sales are gradually increasing,” says Mr Kissane. The Chinese population is growing rapidly and demand for canned infant formula will surely increase as time goes on. Companies like Sphere Healthcare are proving that ‘Australian Made’ still means exceptional quality to both local and international consumers.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

January 18, 2019, 3:33 AM AEDT