Pharmaceuticals: industry sector overview
The pharmaceuticals industry discovers, manufactures and sells products that make people feel better and live longer. These products can be split into three markets: the core pharmaceutical products (medicines that treat conditions such as asthma, cancer and heart disease), vaccines and consumer products (including some over-the-counter products, toothpaste and mouthwash).
Large employers, such as GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser, manufacture both types of products and conduct their own research and development (R&D). There are also generic drug manufacturers; they copy existing products and try to make cheaper versions of them. They can only do this once the patent protecting the product has expired after 20 years, though.
Trends and developments in the pharmaceuticals industry
One key objective in this industry is optimising efficiency. It can take anything between 10 and 15 years to develop and release a product into the market; we need to launch products as early as possible in the patent lifecycle so we can maximise our productivity before generic manufacturers can make them.
We also need to ensure our manufacturing processes are as efficient as possible, so we can remain competitive against the generic manufacturers. To do this, we need to be open to newer manufacturing platforms, for example continuous manufacturing processes that can run for, say, five days. The challenge that comes with this, though, is guaranteeing that the product efficacy and quality is consistent over such a long period of time. The pharmaceuticals industry is heavily regulated, understandably – even mouthwash and toothpaste face a lot of regulation.
What it's like working in the pharmaceuticals industry
As an engineer, you could work in a project environment, improving current manufacturing processes and developing new ones, or you could work on the operations side, which is the day-to-day troubleshooting and problem solving. It's very fast paced as it's vital that we resolve any issues as quickly as possible. Engineers can also work within R&D, designing and developing new technologies that help shape the patient experience. This can be anything from designing device components that are optimal for an injection moulding process to understanding the needs of a patient with dexterity issues.
Most projects call for a mix of quality-focused, operations and technical engineers. An engineer will typically work on several projects at the same time; however, if a high level of engineering intervention is needed, you could be focused on one big project.
If you're working for a global pharmaceutical company, there are lots of opportunities to work abroad if you want to.
Getting a graduate engineering job in the pharmaceuticals industry
Several major employers run graduate engineering programmes, which often rotate you through several roles. It's also possible to apply for a direct-entry role at a specific manufacturing site. Industrial placements are a good way to enter the industry.
As you progress, you can move into technical management (managing technical and engineering processes) or people management. To be effective in either pathway, though, you'll need to have a solid understanding of the manufacturing processes you're working with.
Alongside your technical expertise, you'll need to be able to approach problems logically and systematically - and be able to adjust your communication style to suit different people.
The highlights of a career in pharmaceuticals
- Applying the theory you've learned at university to something tangible.
- Knowing you've helped make products that have improved lives.
- The way your career can progress is really clear and obvious.
The pharmaceuticals industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:
Always check individual employers' requirements.
Thanks to Colette Cochrane for her help with this article. Colette is an engineering director at GSK. She's been in the industry for 12 years and has a BEng and a PhD in chemical engineering from Queen's University Belfast.