Automation & Control / Data Management/Analytics

Pharma: Reluctant revolutionaries

The industry needs to rally behind digital if it wants to see real change

By Karen Langhauser, Chief Content Director

Revolutions are a tricky topic. When our cover design was first proposed, we hesitated to use a concept that might conjure up thoughts of the Bolshevik Revolution, the subsequent rise of the Communist Party and the tens of millions of deaths that followed at the hands of totalitarian dictators — not really the vibe you are looking for in a publication about manufacturing lifesaving drugs.

But revolutions can come in many forms. They can be political, industrial, social, scientific, technological, economic, artistic — the list goes on. The word revolution has been associated with everything from anarchists violently overthrowing governments to the addition of zippers to clothing. 

The one thing revolutions can’t be? Neutral. You can’t “sorta” join a revolution. It’s the kind of thing that you really need to go all in on.

Cue the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This emerging era is marked by rapidly evolving and disruptive advances in technology, and the opportunity to utilize cool new tools like the IIoT, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Pharma is up against some big issues — rising cost pressures, the manufacturing complexities of new classes of therapies, unrelenting regulatory demands, to name a few. The digital revolution offers many possible solutions.

Each year we conduct a “Smart Pharma” survey to gauge where both the industry and those selling to the industry stand in terms of digital transformation. This year’s survey results, especially when compared to previous survey results, generate concern that pharma’s enthusiasm for the digital revolution is dying out and progress is stalling.

Looking at general automation, which is essentially a building block for more advanced digitalization, 88 percent of pharma manufacturers believe that the workforce is becoming more comfortable. And yet, when pharma manufacturers were asked if they thought their companies would choose to automate manual processes that were seemingly effective as-is, a quarter said no. While there is some practicality behind not fixing what isn’t broken, survey answers had an underlying vibe of not wanting to disrupt the status quo. 

This status quo includes the fact that pharma operates a lot of legacy facilities that grapple with aging infrastructure, equipment and processes. The survey results pointed to integration as the biggest hurdle for the industry when it comes to digital transformation. Figuring out how to integrate new technologies with legacy systems without incurring high costs and experiencing production downtime is a very real obstacle.

Journalist and newspaper proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, once said, “Revolutions are neither good nor bad but capable of being both and neither.” There are many ways in which digital can go bad for pharma — any change in process or equipment creates risk. But arguably the biggest way in which pharma can go wrong is by being left behind as other industries progress forward. Focusing on the good — measurable gains in quality, speed and efficiency that ultimate lead to better treatments for patients — will help rally pharma’s digital revolution. 

 

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