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Engineering Education

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  • | 10:29 a.m. February 3, 2012
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When Novartis AG, a Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer, had to halt operations because of a massive drug mix up, Peter Buczynsky got a warning call from Sam's Club because his firm had purchased one of Novartis' drugs.

This is exactly the kind of mistake Buczynsky fights against with his Odessa-based firm PharmaWorks.

Buczynsky founded PharmaWorks in 2002 with Ingo Federle and Ben Brower in a 5,000-square-foot facility in Pasco Industrial Park. The space could not contain the firm, which manufactures and refurbishes equipment used by pharmaceutical companies.

The company, which produces the machines that make the “blister” drug packages found in many pharmaceutical products, now resides in a 20,000-square-foot location and employs 56.

But getting bigger has come with challenges. The biggest task for the company in 2012 will be to figure out how to expand its facility and find the right talent to fill the new space. Buczynsky, president of PharmaWorks, has been connecting with the school system in Pasco County to develop a crop of young students who can fill the void in human capital. He's been scouting new industrial locations as well, but says the biggest hurdle is finding sharp minds.

“You can find another location and move in there,” Buczynsky says. “But if you can't find the talent you need it will be a huge struggle.”

To that end, he started a program that brings students in to learn the inner workings of the manufacturing firm. This doesn't include putting students to work doing menial tasks. In fact, Buczynsky has the school children mapping mathematical equations on white boards and building robots. The program is called FIRST Tech Challenge.

In order to understand PharmaWorks' machines, a worker has to be versed in mechanical as well as electrical engineering. Buczynsky says that since there is already a void in the manufacturing talent pool, finding new hires that have engineering backgrounds has been rough.

Nevertheless, the firm's program seems to be working. Buczynsky recalls a scene reminiscent of “Good Will Hunting” when some of his employees came across detailed mathematical equations written on a white board. “They were like 'what is that?'” he says. “And we realized it was from one of the students.”

It's not a foolproof system, and that's how the company wants it. Buczynsky remembers when a machine designed by students completely tore itself apart after he had warned them the design might not work. “It's really a positive thing,” Buczynsky says. “You can tell them all you want but they won't learn until they experience something like that.” And the firm hopes the farm system will keep engineering-minded students in the region, specifically with PharmaWorks.

Ironically, with the amount of knowledge a PharmaWorks' employee must possess, the company has to design its products to be simple. Its end users are the workers who use PharmaWorks' machines to package medicine. “It has to work like you're driving your car,” Buczynsky says.

As one of the few companies of its type in the U.S. — Buczynsky says most of its competition is in Europe — PharmaWorks has added cartoning and tooling to its business model. Buczynsky says the firm, which recorded roughly $11 million in revenues in 2011, is projected to grow by $2 million this year.

The firm could move into contract packaging, which would put it in charge of packaging drugs instead of just making machines that do it. Regardless, PharmaWorks will continue to face the challenge of hiring technically competent workers. Says Buczynsky: “Before we take on anything else, we need the talent.”


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