Pharma's “it” factory

April 25, 2021
Do the industry's facilities have what it takes?

It’s something that everyone wants to have. Those that have it command a presence. They get stuff done. They gracefully adjust, unruffled by life’s twists and turns.

Charisma has always struck me as one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” kind of things. I don’t always know how to precisely define the “it” factor, but I can always spot someone who has it.

For pharma facilities, this factor is flexibility.

A manufacturing plant that can quickly adjust to all the curveballs thrown at it at any given time — change in product, change in demand, change in process? Yes, please.

It sounds desirable — almost magical at times — but once you look past the inherent swagger, what does flexibility actual entail? And could you spot it immediately if you saw it? As I found out while writing this month’s cover story, it really depends on who you ask.

When it comes to a universal discussion of the “it” factor, we see it in various forms — actors have it, athletes have it, CEOs have it. In short, it can manifest differently depending on the need and the drivers behind that need. Flexibility in pharma is much the same. If the need is COVID vaccines during a global pandemic, for example, flexibility means speed and scale, and as we’ve witnessed, manifests as a quick, modular build. But if we are talking about small batch, personalized medicines, flexibility might mean the ability to quickly reconfigure a plant with less downtime in between batches, and then the discussion may shift to single-use facilities.

If you’ve ever read up on pharma facility design, you’re aware that the push for flexible facilities is not a new one for pharma — industry journals certainly don’t leave us wanting for articles singing the praises of flexibility. And yet, as pharma has evolved, so have these discussions and so has the concept of flexibility.

And although you might be tired of reading about it, you have to admit that some of the flex-enabling advancements in design, process and technology that have emerged in the past decade are pretty darn cool. You need not look any further than ISPE’s Facility of the Year awards if you want to be wowed by state-of-the-art projects. Demonstrating game-changing configurability, portability, scalability and sustainability in different forms, what all these facilities tend to have in common is built-in flexibility.

Unfortunately, “pretty darn cool” can often mean “pretty darn expensive.” But as I learned from my discussions with experts in pharma facility design, not all flex is flashy or more importantly, pricey.

In life, many of our examples of people who have “it” happen to be wealthy celebrities, but ultimately, money can’t buy charisma. While some people are born with it, most nurture and develop charm — and as with any life skill, the sooner you start, the better. The same goes for pharma facilities. Design decisions (such as making sure ceiling height can accommodate equipment from different vendors) made early don’t always add a lot of cost to a construction project and can still pay off down the line in added flexibility benefits.

The flexibility discussion in pharma is ongoing, and like the industry itself, constantly evolving to meet current needs. Like charisma, at first pass, flexibility seems enchanting and a bit mysterious, but as many pharma companies have demonstrated, there are tangible steps that can help get facilities there.

For pharma, flexibility is both practical and attainable — and besides, all the cool facilities are doing it.

About the Author

Karen P. Langhauser | Chief Content Director, Pharma Manufacturing

Karen currently serves as Pharma Manufacturing's chief content director.

Now having dedicated her entire career to b2b journalism, Karen got her start writing for Food Manufacturing magazine. She made the decision to trade food for drugs in 2013, when she joined Putman Media as the digital content manager for Pharma Manufacturing, later taking the helm on the brand in 2016.

As an award-winning journalist with 20+ years experience writing in the manufacturing space, Karen passionately believes that b2b content does not have to suck. As the content director, her ongoing mission has been to keep Pharma Manufacturing's editorial look, tone and content fresh and accessible.

Karen graduated with honors from Bucknell University, where she majored in English and played Division 1 softball for the Bison. Happily living in NJ's famed Asbury Park, Karen is a retired Garden State Rollergirl, known to the roller derby community as the 'Predator-in-Chief.'