Equipment Validation Protocol for the Pharma Manufacturing Industry – What’s contained in it? 

By: Gerry Creaner B.Chem Eng and Donagh Fitzgerald B.Prod Eng. Last Updated: January 2024

What is a Pharmaceutical Equipment Validation Protocol?

An Equipment Validation Protocol is a written plan stating how equipment qualification will be conducted. It details factors such as product characteristics, production equipment, test scripts and methods, test parameters and acceptance criteria, test checksheets and final approval. The typical objective of a protocol is to prove “fitness for use ” of an equipment system.

Do Note: Equipment Validation and Equipment Qualification are often used as synonyms but some validation professionals would argue that Equipment Qualification is the preferred term as the term qualification is normally used for equipment, instruments, systems and utilities, while the term validation is used for processes, procedures and methods. However, for the purposes of this guide, we will use both terms.

BTW, if you need to learn how to populate one, check out our Equipment Qualification/Validation Training Course.


What is the Aim of an Equipment Qualification Protocol?

The high-level goal or purpose of a qualification protocol is to define the test scripts that must be followed to ensure that the equipment is ‘fit for purpose’ to manufacture safe medicines at an affordable cost.

The protocol notes all the equipment that you’d test and all the piping and instruments that are connected to the equipment (i.e. the equipment system). It also documents how the tests are going to be carried out, who is going to do them, and records whether the equipment and its piping and instruments pass or fail the test.

We are going to do a deep dive into what’s contained within a validation protocol template and guide you through the process of writing one. We’ll also take the example of validating a clean-in-place system (CIP) within a pharmaceutical plant using the relevant supporting documents, to demonstrate how you’d complete the template.

But before we start, I’d strongly recommend you carefully read the following two articles to give yourself an overview of the validation and qualification process and familiarise yourself with some of the relevant terminology.

Determine the Qualification Requirements

Most validation projects will take an existing blank template and modify it for the project at hand rather than create a new blank template from scratch every time. But there may be times where you’d need to create key pieces of the protocol from scratch.

The protocol will detail the following elements.

  • Product characteristics – showing what your system is looking to achieve/produce
  • Production equipment – detailing the equipment necessary
  • Test scripts and methods – telling you the steps involved in conducting a test
  • Test parameters and acceptance criteria – defining acceptable test results
  • Test checksheets – documenting and recording the test results
  • Final approval – documenting that the validation process has been successfully carried out

What are the Key Elements of a Qualification Protocol?

Think of this as preparing a highly detailed checklist that details factors like:

  • Impact assessments – you don’t want to validate and test everything as that would be hugely expensive and wasteful. So first you conduct a component-level impact assessment on the system to figure out what components are critical and directly impact product quality vs those items which are non-critical and don’t and only validate the items that are critical.
  • IQ OQ PQ test checksheets – e.g. equipment installation, instrumentation installation, piping installation, P&ID walkdown installation checksheets to document and record results
  • Test scripts and methods – telling you the steps involved in conducting a test
  • Test parameters and acceptance criteria – defining acceptable test results
  • Product characteristics – showing what your system is looking to achieve/produce
  • Production equipment – detailing the equipment necessary
  • Final approval – documenting that the validation process has been successfully carried out

For this example, we are going to describe the key elements contained within a blank protocol for a Clean in Place (CIP) System along with the key thinking and intent behind each section. The blank template is about 60 pages in length. By the time it has been filled out, it could stretch to 150 pages or more, depending on the size of the project.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the protocol is laid out for the convenience of those who follow, not for those who are initially filling it in. Sections are laid out to walk someone through the completed validated system, not in the order you’d fill them in.

Note: While we can’t share the full blank protocol with you (as it’s proprietary material), we will share some key elements of the protocol in the form of blank templates that you can download for your own use.

1 – Approvals Page

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On the protocol approvals page, you would complete a list of necessary protocol approvers – the people who need to “sign off” on the validation activities.

How this would “look” in the real world:

This section is where validation team members have their responsibilities summarised, and sign to state that everything they’ve written in the document is correct and accurate. Each of the relevant personnel would be listed on this page.

While this is the first page of a protocol, it is the last page that will be signed. Signatures on this page confirm that everything in the rest of the document is accurate and that you are happy with the results and recommendations.

You should never sign anything unless you know it to be an accurate reflection of the situation. You would never sign anything that was not your own work. Always remember that in an FDA audit, the auditor could ask to speak to you about your specific role in the validation process, and you would have to be able to defend the decisions you made.

Additional Reading

What Types of Jobs are there in the Pharmaceutical Industry?
What Is a Validation Engineer?

2 – System Description

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In this section, you need to prepare a summary ‘System Description’. You might include things such as:

  • Drawing a process flow / block diagram
  • Listing critical operational features
  • Describing the major equipment components in the context of their installation and functional features.

How this would “look” in the real world:

In an FDA audit, this is where the auditors will go first to understand the system being validated. It provides a high-level overview of the equipment system. It needs to be short, but also provide the level of detail they need to understand the rest of the protocol.

When you first begin in a Validation team, this will probably already be completed for you. However, as you gain seniority, you will need to understand the purpose of a system description and be able to write one of your own.

3 – Scope

In our example, we have broken this into 3 parts.

System Impact Assessment:

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In this section you describe why the CIP System is considered a ‘direct impact’ system.

Component Impact Assessment:

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For the identified equipment, instruments, and piping, you must determine if the components are critical or non-critical – and if critical, whether they are product-contact critical, operationally critical, or both.

Let’s take a look at how you differentiate between by product-contact critical items, operationally critical items, and non-critical items

Product-contact critical items come into direct contact with the product OR are part of the chain of surfaces through which there is a risk of contamination being carried to the product.

The first part of that is quite self-explanatory but the second part can take a bit of thinking about. So let’s consider an everyday example…

You’re in the kitchen and you cut raw chicken. Once you’ve finished, you don’t wash your hands. Instead you go to the fridge and take out salad items. You cut them, and serve the salad to your friend. Your friend gets ill from salmonella after eating the salad.

Your friend was never near the raw chicken but there was a chain of surfaces (e.g. the skin on your hands, and the outer surface of the salad items) that brought the salmonella directly from the raw chicken to your friend.

Our clean in place system has that type of product-contact critical items. The final medicine or its ingredients never come near the clean in place system but the system is part of a chain of surfaces that can pass contamination to the product.

Think of the detergent tank of our system. The inner surface of the tank touches the detergent liquid. That detergent liquid passes along a system of pipes and into the reactors during a drawdown. That same liquid then touches the inner surface of the reactor. After a cleaning cycle is finished and manufacturing restarts, the inside of that reactor will come into direct contact with product ingredients.

So although no final products (or even ingredients) are ever in direct contact with the inside of the detergent tank, there is a chain of surfaces that leads from the tank to a surface that will come into contact with the product. If there was contamination in the detergent tank, there is a possibility it could ultimately reach the product via this chain of surfaces. Therefore, our detergent tank is product-contact critical.

Operationally critical items don’t come into direct contact with the product and they’re not part of that chain of surfaces that can introduce contamination. But they contribute to maintaining a state of balance (dynamic equilibrium) for the key factors (e.g. temperature, flow, level, concentration) in our Clean in Place system.

If any of these 4 key factors are out of specification in our CIP system (e.g. liquid is not hot enough or detergent concentration isn’t strong enough), we cannot guarantee that the system is working as intended. Operationally critical items are involved in controlling, monitoring, or reporting these 4 factors so it’s essential that we validate them.

(Note that these key factors may be different depending on the system you’re validating, the 4 listed are specific to controlling our CIP system.)

Non-critical items do not come into contact with the product, nor can they influence the factors that are essential for the correct functioning of the system.

Summary Table – Operational Critical Components:

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For any component identified as operationally critical, you’ll then complete the summary table of the operational critical components and include rationale.

How this would “look” in the real world:

When you begin in the field – the component impact assessment will probably have been completed for you . However, over time, you are expected to be able to conduct an impact assessment on your own. This is one of the most critical parts of a protocol.

The examples above and your knowledge of ISPE Guide Baseline 5 will be key when it comes to making decisions about criticality, and what needs validation as a result.

It’s important to remember the remit of the FDA at this point and instil it in your work ethic – to ensure the “manufacture safe medicines” and “at an affordable cost”.

You should always keep in mind that the more items that need to be validated, the costlier the validation process will be, and the costlier the medicine will be for the patient. You need to validate the key items, but you cannot just validate everything “just incase”. It’s this balancing act you will need to perform in the field.

You have to be able to justify your decisions around which things you deemed critical if questioned by an FDA auditor.

Always remember, that while an FDA auditor might hold a different opinion on which items are critical, they will respect your decisions if you use scientific-based risk management tools to reach them. There can be different opinions as there is often no single right answer to what is critical and what is not. There are wrong answers of course, but many decisions on critical items are shades-of-grey rather than black or white.

4 – P&ID Scope

P&ID Scope

In this section you include a copy/scan of the P&ID and either draw a ‘scope bubble’ or yellow-highlight the ‘in-scope’ components.

How this would “look” in the real world:

This section builds on the decisions you made earlier. In the field, the decisions you made regarding the scope of the protocol (i.e. what equipment elements, instrumentation components, and line and piping elements are part of the system you are validating) determine what you include in the scope bubble here. Again, as a new member of a validation team, you will likely be told what is included but over time you will be expected to make the decisions yourself.

5 – Definitions / Glossary

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Make a list of abbreviations that are used in the protocol and their definitions. This is something you should fill up as you complete the protocol. Once you have finished, read back through the protocol and make sure to add any abbreviations you have missed.

How this would “look” in the real world:

The purpose of this section is so that the person who comes along after you can understand any abbreviations you have used throughout the protocol. We all routinely use some abbreviations, this is no different in companies. But an abbreviation used on the factory floor that people around you understand is not necessarily something an outsider or someone new to the company will know. When it comes to an FDA auditor, they need to be able to understand exactly what you are referring to with your abbreviations – so make sure this is as comprehensive as possible.

6 – Responsibilities / Subject Matter Experts

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In this section, you identify subject matter experts. These are the people responsible for the development, review, approval, and execution of the protocol. Complete a list of project responsibilities for each of the specific subject matter experts.

How this would “look” in the real world:

When you begin in a Validation Team, you will be told exactly who needs to sign off on your work and what responsibilities each team member has. If you go on to be a Validation Engineer and begin to write protocols from scratch, you could then be responsible for deciding what each department in the company is responsible for, who the subject matter experts are, and what responsibilities each person has.

An FDA auditor will turn to this protocol section to see each department or individual’s responsibilities so they know who to talk to if they have specific questions about a test or procedure. It is therefore important that this section is detailed and accurate.

This is also one of the sections that is closely linked to other protocol sections. Your Approvals Page (Section 2), Your Responsibilities Page (Section 10) and Your Progression Approval Page (Section 12), should all align. If they do not, an auditor is going to have serious questions.

7 – Calibration Program Verification

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