Does automation answer every packaging question?

Oct. 18, 2022
Many companies have started to invest in enabling technologies including automation — but is that the solution?

Pharmaceutical packaging represents the last step in the drug product manufacturing cycle, the final event before the treatment is delivered to dispensers and patients all over the world. The process is not simple, it is capital and process-intensive, and managing the task becomes even more complex at a commercial scale.

It is for this reason that many drug manufacturers employ contract packaging organizations (CPOs) to handle the process, as the expertise required to make the process efficient is crucial. The pharmaceutical contract packaging market is expanding quickly and is expected to grow from $31 billion in 2021 to $57 billion by 2030, representing a compound annual growth rate of 6.8%, according to Precedence Research.[1]

For their part, the CPOs are continuously working to streamline their packaging process and, in recent years, this has meant leveraging the latest technologies to keep up with drug innovation, remain competitive, and deliver services that are both time- and cost-efficient. This has led many companies to invest in enabling technologies including automation.

The appeal of automation

Automation aims to increase packaging line throughput and reduce operator involvement. When the technology is applied to a single vial in a box presentation, with automation the process can be executed quickly and more reliably when compared to a traditional packing line.

The same is true when applied to the automation of fill/finish, labeling, inspection, and packing of sterile injectables. Because the automated process occurs within containment, the risk of contamination is greatly reduced. Automating a packaging or labeling line is often the only viable solution to safely handle highly potent and sterile products in commercial volumes.

Packaging at high volumes, at high speeds, and within highly defined specifications is where CPOs often project that the investment in automation is the right choice. Many fully automated lines are only dedicated to a single product, so there needs to be high demand and volume for it to ensure the kind of economies of scale that make automating the process cost-effective in the first place.

Does automation answer every question?

Despite the previously mentioned benefits provided by a fully integrated automated packaging line, it is not the case that every product is handled and packaged in this way. To decide to invest in automation, the CPO must be sure that it represents a sufficient improvement in efficiency, speed and quality over the current manual process in order to offset the initial cost of setting up an automated process to replace it.

However, automation is a tool and its value to a CPO is only realized when it is applied strategically and in support of well-defined operational and business goals. Does automation have an answer for every packaging task or operation? As strong as an automated packaging line may be in producing high volumes of a dedicated product, if their product requires a line change, even a small one, the changeover can often have an outsized impact on production. Machine settings and production runs aren’t the only things impacted by a line change. It may be necessary to retrain operators, update process programming and other measures to accommodate changing the line to suit a new product.

An automated line is less efficient in dealing with packaging complexity in the process. For example, when a product requires several feeding stations to manage component and package assembly. In this case, the ability of an automated line to duplicate and speed up a multi-component process while reducing error may be technically feasible but not practically achievable at any price. In the case of CPOs delivering low-volume clinical or commercial supplies within a changing, broad portfolio of products, automating packaging steps and assembly would unlikely be appropriate or cost-effective.

Looking to the future

There are several factors that determine the decision of whether to automate packaging processes: market trends, the variety of products and packages, the business plans of a CPO, as well as the broader needs of the industry’s clients. What should not be assumed is that automation is always the answer or that automated packaging lines will deliver all products soon.

Current trends in the industry, such as the adoption of QR-enabled packaging, near-field communication (NFC) technology, or radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, all provide several benefits within the supply chain and to patients themselves. However, they also complicate the packaging process and may prove too complex or costly to automate in the short term. This is where the flexibility of manual operations will still prove useful.

About the Author

Jeroen De Visser | Manager of Logistics

Jeroen is a Manager of Logistics at Tjoapack. With a mechanical engineer education, he started his career as a workshop planner. Later he specialized in logistics and supply chain in food retail. Four years ago, Jeroen transitioned from food retail to pharma. In his current role as Manager of Logistics at Tjoapack, he is responsible for the production process and information flow optimization, procurement, inbound and outbound activities, warehousing of the materials, and other internal projects associated with the production.