The potential to improve processes across production is immense, and by adding ideas and a measure of fine-tuning, as well as remedying problems when they arise, the way in which medicines are made can be significantly improved.

Between the challenges of creating consistent, reliable and quality medicines, and manufacturing ample quantities of medicines within tight timeframes, lies the role of engineering.

Input in the development cycle

Although much of this work takes place near the time when a medicine is being geared up for full manufacture, engineers also have an input earlier on in the development cycle - from the time an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) is synthesised in a test-tube until packaging is complete and distribution under way.

Involvement of chemical engineers in the process development stages, before formulations for drugs are finalised, allows them to ensure that the resulting product has exactly the properties it needs to have. Uniform release, for example, is something that is both hard and expensive to alter once a formulation has entered the clinical trials phase.

Process engineering

A major part of drug manufacture involves process engineering, relating specifically to chemical reactions. As the synthesis of the chemical compound progresses from lab-scale production to pilot-plant and full manufacture, chemical engineers help design and commission new and adapted machinery, eliminate teething problems and ultimately optimise the reaction yield of chemicals. Their job doesn't finish when production is up and running; they're on hand to lend operational support, providing solutions when problems emerge and investigating the root cause of faults and errors.

Manufacturing stage

At the secondary manufacturing stage, engineers will need to be involved in developing the process for conversion of the medicine into the dosage form (tablet, capsule, ointment, sterile injection etc) and subsequently handling and packaging.

Wide ranging though their work is, chemical engineers form just a part of a project team. Alongside them, you'll find colleagues who specialise in disciplines such as mechanical, electrical, control and civil engineering. Between them, these groups contribute technical expertise to a huge range of areas. This could mean designing and building facilities ranging from laboratories and production plants through to offices and warehouses. Alternatively, it could be a matter of operating and maintaining existing machinery – always looking to make improvements.

Emerging technologies

Engineers are also responsible for exploiting the latest emerging technologies by evaluating the benefits they could bring to the business and developing ways in which they could be applied. Risk management forms the final piece in the equation. Perhaps most important of all, it's this aspect of engineering which makes sure that rigid internal and external regulations are adhered to and every medicine that's produced is of the highest possible quality and as safe as possible.

Therefore, a career in engineering involves huge amounts of teamwork. As well as other engineers, you could find yourself working alongside scientists, colleagues in quality assurance and regulatory affairs or people involved in other areas of manufacture. That's not to say you won't make an individual impact though. On the contrary, the opportunity to introduce your own ideas is considerable. Communicating them effectively and applying yourself to a host of different challenges, you'll help see that the development and manufacturing process is as reliable and efficient as possible.

People who work in engineering

Every engineering discipline is applicable to at least one role within the industry, as the qualities that engineers bring are seen as highly transferable. There are several levels of entry to begin your career.

Post GCSE or Standard Grade (or equivalent) school leavers are accepted as apprentices – leading to mechanical, electrical or control and instrumentation craft roles – and some companies will fund part time degree studies beyond this.

More typically, engineers may enter at post-degree level to a wide variety of roles:

  • Chemical engineers
  • Production engineers
  • Plant engineers
  • Validation engineers

In addition to these roles, which present the core areas of engineering within pharmaceutical manufacture, there are other roles of crucial importance:

  • Support roles
  • Plant maintenance
  • Management of people, resources and facilities

Much of the technology involved in the development and manufacture of pharmaceutical products is leading edge, and engineers have to understand and harness this to maximum effect wherever they work.

The training and development you can expect is as good as any successful industry and many companies offer guidance and have accredited professional development tracks that lead to membership of relevant engineering institutions.

Manufacturing and supply roles

Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023