Historically, pharmaceutical manufacturing was a long and laborious process. The industry can be traced back to local apothecaries, where scientists would manually create and distribute botanical drugs to the community. Often, this process would require multiple people to manufacture just one bottle of medicine. Today, the industry manufactures medicines on an unprecedented scale, but could the process be improved?
Other manufacturing sectors, such as automotive, food and electronics, have long used automated technology in their factories. However, it has been difficult for the pharmaceutical industry to implement automation and other industrial technologies on quite the same scale. Most industries contend with strict regulations, but the pharmaceutical sector must carefully consider, validate and audit every change it makes, to ensure safety to public health.
The sheer volume of regulations and approvals required in pharma means implementing new technology is hard work. The endless paperwork and administrative procedures before new equipment can be purchased and installed results in advanced automation being considered too complicated.
Most pharmaceutical manufacturers already use some automated systems. For example, conveyors, bowl feeders and industrial robots are commonplace in many large factories. However, these facilities tend to upgrade machinery much less frequently than other industry sectors and are typically not as experimental with their investments. Pharma is in fact experiencing a higher uptake of new types of robotics, such as collaborative robots, than other industry sectors. These machines are being used on the packaging side of pharmaceutical manufacturing but are unlikely to become commonplace until the technology has developed to a more advanced and established level.
Another challenge for pharma is the sheer cost of downtime and the potential extension of downtime that integrating new automation can bring. According to a study by ARC Advisory Group, when a production interruption in pharmaceutical manufacturing causes the entire batch to be scrapped, it can cost manufacturers approximately $8,300 per minute. Therefore, the implementation of new technology must be quick and efficient, as long periods of downtime will result in a longer return on investment.
This time sensitivity also relates to the replacement broken parts. Let’s say a conveyor in a pharma plant stops operating suddenly. Sourcing an exact replacement would be the quickest solution to restart production, but this is not always possible. In this instance, let’s imagine the same model of conveyor is no longer manufactured by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and therefore is not available to order immediately.
Plant managers in other industries may see this as an opportunity to upgrade the conveyor to a newer, faster and more efficient model, but those working in pharma know it’s not that simple.
When an essential part breaks down, innovation often goes out the window. In these instances, it makes sense for manufacturers to contact an obsolete parts supplier to find an exact replacement for the broken-down part.
Upgrading a conveyor to a newer model may seem like a simple process. However, systems integration can often require significant periods of downtime for a pharmaceutical production line. In an industry worth an estimated $1.17 trillion per year, according to a report by the Business Research Company, minimizing downtime is a significantly higher priority than investing in new models of equipment.
While a shiny new machine would, without a doubt, improve production in the long term, the process of sourcing, approving, installing and integrating equipment in this industry is simply too longwinded.
As a sector, pharma manufacturing is notoriously risk averse — and with good reason. However, this hesitant culture is impacting the effectiveness of pharmaceutical production. There’s no way to reduce the regulatory complexities of the industry. But in order to keep up with other industry sectors, a balance should be struck between investing in innovative technology and minimizing production downtime.