La Felguera: The aspirin capital

The Bayer plant in the Asturian town produces all of the acetylsalicylic acid needed for the German pharmaceutical giant's hallmark product

All of the acetylsalicylic acid - the basic ingredient of aspirin - that German pharmaceutical multinational Bayer produces is made in Spain. According to the company, 200 million tablets of the most common household drug are consumed daily. The firm is also forecasting that demand for aspirin's main active ingredient will increase by between 5 and 8 percent over the next few years due to the increased use of the anti-coagulant drug Adiro, which is a form of aspirin.

To feed this huge market, Bayer needs a workforce of 160 people at its Asturias plant in La Felguera, a town of 20,000 inhabitants. In September 2012, the group approved an investment of six million euros to increase the capacity of the factory by between 20 and 25 percent after closing a production center it had in Colombia.

The plant in La Felguera will now be able to produce 6,000 metric tons of the ingredient a year.

Acetylsalicylic acid has been produced in this part of Asturias since 1942.

Bayer's status as a world leader in the pharmaceutical sector hardly needs mentioning. The figures speak for themselves. The company has its headquarters in the industrial heartland of Europe in Leverkusen, a city with a population of around 160,000 in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which, with 18 million inhabitants, accounts for 22 percent of Germany's GDP. The German pharmaceutical giant had revenues of 36.5 billion euros in 2011; it has a market capitalization of 82 billion euros; and it counts on an annual research and development budget of 2.9 billion euros, as well as a total workforce of 113,000.

However, Bayer's most famous product, which was developed by company chemist Felix Hoffmann in 1897 as a remedy for his father's arthritic pain, is produced in an economically depressed Spanish region. Asturias had a jobless rate of 24 percent in the third quarter, according to the National Statistics Institute's latest Active Population Survey (EPA). The region has a long tradition as a major industrial center in Spain and after decades of restructuring, reconversion and social conflict in the steel and coalmining sectors, the area is still looking for an alternative to replace the heavy industry it thrived on in the past.

"Bayer has placed its trust in the La Felguera plant for three reasons: experience, flexibility and specialization," says Jorge-Julián Álvarez Rodríguez, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering and is head of quality control at the factory. Álvarez says the strengths of the plant include a "continuous striving to improve, the focus on innovation and quality, and respect for the environment."

Acetylsalicylic acid has been produced in this part of Asturias since 1942. Álvarez says that along the way "lots of improvements have been developed in collaboration with other institutions linked to the Principality of Asturias," such as the Foundation for the Development of Applied Scientific Research and Technology, and the Institute for Economic Development of the northern region.

"In 1988, Bayer installed a pilot research and development plan for the manufacturing processes at the plant," Álvarez adds.

In a highly competitive market such as the pharmaceutical industry, flexibility is one of the keys to success. Álvarez says that over the course of the past few years the plant has been able to adapt itself to optimize the manufacturing processes and maximize its output. "It has been essential to adapt to the needs of our clients across the globe both in terms of volumes required, delivery times and quality."

The third aspect that supports the sustainability and growth of Bayer in Asturias has been specialization. "This is what has allowed us to distinguish ourselves from other centers in the group," Álvarez says. "By focusing on a few basic active components, we have been able to channel our efforts and find the most efficient, safe and competitive form to produce the main active ingredient of aspirin."

Manuel Fernández Ortega, who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Oviedo and is manager of the plant, says Spanish professionals have "won respect" over the past 30 years. "The academic and technical training has nothing to envy other areas in Europe," he says.

Ortega explains that one of the features of the plant is its ties with the University of Oviedo. Some 30 employees of the plant were trained at the university. "Teachers there work with us and select the best students as candidates for hands-on-experience at the plant," he says. Projects that were developed at the university have been taken on board by Bayer and developed within its plants across the globe.

José Ramón Paredes de la Planta, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering, splits his time between his work at Bayer with his post of associate professor at the university. He says most of the technicians who work at the La Felguera plant started their professional careers with a collaboration project between Bayer and the university. Paredes believes that the close links between the company and the academic center provides the "university with the opportunity to update the content of its courses according to the real needs of companies, which allows it to pass on to students the knowledge required to make them successful professionals."

Paredes says that apart from providing companies with the best-qualified professionals, such ties also benefit "the research experience of universities to improve their manufacturing processes and optimize their output."

Paredes explains that from the 1990s onward, Bayer and the university's chemical engineering and environment technology department started to jointly develop projects, such as the optimization and control of the production process for acetylsalicylic acid. Other projects included initiatives to improve the environmental efficiency of the plant.

"The plant has two systems for treating residual waters that use Bayer's own technology," quality control manager Álvarez points out. The company is also a signatory of a voluntary agreement of the chemical sector on the improvement of health, safety and environmental management.

As a major exporter, Bayer's La Felguera plant not only depends on the efficiency and precision of its internal manufacturing processing but also on the infrastructure of the whole region. Bayer transfers what it produces to nearby Gijón, from where it is shipped out to the rest of the world. In the end run, the enterprise is a question of coordination between the company, the university and other institutions to attract foreign investment, create jobs for qualified people and increase exports.

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