Dealing with Pharma's Digital Demons

To advance, pharma must confront its digital transformation fears head-on

By Karen Langhauser, Chief Content Director

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Every industry has its demons. The pharmaceutical industry’s struggles — its aversion to risk, fear of regulatory backlash, the siloed nature of its organizational structure — are well documented.

But today’s developing environment — coined the Fourth Industrial Revolution and characterized by rapidly evolving and disruptive advances in technology — has created a new and intimidating landscape. According to the World Economic Forum, this current revolution is “reshaping industries, blurring geographical boundaries, challenging existing regulatory frameworks, and even redefining what it means to be human.”¹ In this new world, tools such as automation, IIoT, cloud-computing and data analytics offer all industries the potential for digital transformation — if they can properly understand and implement them.

Pharmaceutical Manufacturing’s second annual Smart Pharma survey separately asked drug manufacturers and equipment and services vendors* their thoughts on the pharma industry’s digital transformation progress.

Close analysis of the survey results confirms a lot of what we already know: The pharmaceutical industry has seen great advances in transformative technology, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that if properly harnessed, many of these innovations can give manufacturers an edge. But recent survey results closely mirror the responses from last year — and the concern is that this could mean progress is stalling.

In order to keep moving forward and propel itself into the next stage of digital transformation, pharma needs to confront some very real challenges.

The good news is that pharma believes in digital. Over 70 percent of surveyed pharma manufacturers see the big picture, understanding that in the long-run, a more automated pharma industry will improve productivity, quality, and efficiency — and cut costs. This year, the number of manufacturers who specifically indicated a connection between automation and cost-cutting jumped from 55 to 71 percent — perhaps a positive sign that manufacturers are starting to see actual financial benefits from successful digital initiatives.

Cultural buy-in, especially from a traditionally conservative industry, is also crucial for success. According to survey results, the industry is noting a rising comfort level with the new computing, control and communications technologies represented by the IIoT. Over 79 percent of pharma respondents noted an increase in automation-related comfort in the industry, while 83 percent of vendors (up 15 percent from last year) agreed that the pharma workforce’s comfort level is rising.

Encouragingly, when it comes to designing or upgrading manufacturing facilities, 87 percent of manufacturers and 91 percent of vendors said that digitalization is part of the discussion. Of this group, 36 percent of manufacturers said digitalization is actually the leading priority.

benefits of digitalTECHNOLOGY IS LURKING
Digital technology is everywhere — firmly embedded in our personal and professional lives — to the point where it is difficult to claim that a lack of technological innovation is holding back progress.

Survey answers support the assertion that the technological innovation needed for pharma to succeed on its digital transformation journey is available, and at increasingly affordable costs, too.

When ranking their concerns surrounding smart manufacturing plants, tech innovation — specifically the concern that “technology being offered to the pharma industry is not advanced enough” — was second to last on the list of manufacturers’ concerns and dead-last according to vendors. But perhaps vendors are warranted 

in giving themselves a pat on the back, as it seems that overall, the industry is confident that the level of technology being offered is advanced enough to do the job.

These results are in consonance with the manufacturing sector in general, as well. At the recent Smart Industry 2018 Conference — an annual event geared toward accelerating the ongoing digital transformation of manufacturing — the exhibit hall was overflowing with innovative technologies. Yet during three days of presentations, the focus was not on technology, but instead, how to integrate and use these new tools to maximize benefits.

In pharma, there appears to be a debate as to who is responsible for continuing to advance this technology. According to survey results, pharma manufacturers are somewhat split between believing vendors should be proactively leading the charge, believing vendors should be reacting to the needs of pharma companies, or believing there should be collaboration between both parties. Vendors, however, are more decisive: Over 50 percent believe they should be leading the innovation charge, while a mere 12 percent feel they should be reacting to the demands of drug manufacturers.

pharma digital progressREALITY CHECK
Last year’s survey revealed that overall, pharmaceutical manufacturers were more optimistic than vendors about the industry’s digital transformation progress. This year’s results saw that gap shrinking — perhaps a natural balancing out as the industry, as a whole, gains a clearer picture of where they stand.

When asked to describe the pharma industry’s collective progress on digital transformation initiatives, the vast majority (87 percent of manufacturers and 89 percent of vendors) put the industry into one of two categories: at the starting gate, with focus on learning and exploration, or identifying early applications to pilot.

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