One of the factors shaping the pharmaceutical plant of the future is the trend towards more personalized, niche medicines requiring more efficient and flexible manufacturing lines. Printing and packaging must follow suit and become a more seamless and integrated part of operations, able to change whenever the needs of the manufacturer or consumer change. This is already happening, says Steven Simske, principal scientist in security printing for Hewlett-Packard. We spoke with Simske about what the future holds for pharmaceutical printing and packaging operations.
The trend to monitor, measure, and analyze every facet of production will extend to packaging and printing, Simske says. “There’s going to be a lot more integration of inspection and interrogation into manufacturing lines,” he says. With the advent of nano-sensors and other advanced technologies that provide real-time data about your processes, manufacturers will have the ability to control printing and packaging operations like never before.
The ability to conduct what Simske calls “ubiquitous analytics” will not necessarily lead to increased complexity of operations, however. Just the opposite, he says. One key to this trend will be the ability to have hybrid sensors, those that, for example, assess label integrity, product weight, package shape, and so on. Whereas manufacturers currently need to install expensive cameras and other inspection devices in various places along their lines, they will now be able to combine them into fewer locations. “You’re going to see a wider variety of inspection and interrogation devices, but they’re going to be simpler,” Simske says.
Another factor leading towards increased printing and packaging simplification is the trend towards integrating myriad safety and brand features into one printable label. From miniaturized RFID tags for security to batteries and LED lights for brand promotion (e.g., labels that flash displays as shoppers pass by), all can be incorporated into one label and applied via one single machine. No longer will RFID chips be so cumbersome as to require separate equipment for application, for instance.
Manufacturers will be able to program and store as much data and information on a single, adaptable label as they need, while wholesalers, retailers, or even consumers will be able to drill down within a label and find out where a product was made, by whom, under what conditions, etc. “Everything you’re printing is going to be stored as part of an analytical onramp,” Simske says.
Digital and other printing equipment will become vastly more flexible and customizable, Simske adds. Manufacturers will be able to program their machines to tailor labels for certain stores or types of customers, to make products more specific and user-friendly. “Inference shouldn’t be too complicated,” he says. In other words, patients taking medicine shouldn’t have to work too hard to know the product they’re taking, and this ability will be facilitated by changes taking place on the manufacturing floor.
What this all means for manufacturing lines is that there will be less of a need for product transfers and special, separate packaging and labeling equipment. There will be fewer lines that divert product off the main line, and this will greatly simplify operations, Simske says. “The key thing in the future is going to be all about not adding waste when you don’t have to,” he says.