Pharma Integrates

Five technologies that could disrupt pharma manufacturing

By Ben Hargreaves

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/Pom669)
(Image: Getty/Pom669)

Related tags 3d printing Artificial intelligence Continuous manufacturing Automation Digital twin

Pharma production is ‘too conservative’ and needs to ‘be bolder’ in adopting nascent technologies, or be left behind by new models, suggested one MD.

Last week, panellists at Pharma Integrates assessed how significant an impact developing technology could make to standard manufacturing processes in the pharma industry.

Artificial Intelligence, digitisation, automation, 3D printing, and continuous manufacturing were reviewed during the ‘Applying new technologies to the pharma value chain’ panel discussion, which considered the validity of various approaches and urgency of adoption.

For each new technology, one quote has been selected to offer the panel’s perspective on what the industry could see in the years to come.

3D printing

3D printing is another technology wherein the potential applications have been discussed across a range of industries, and the US Food and Drug Administration has been particularly supportive​ of those companies looking to invest in the area.

One of the benefits of 3D printing in smaller batches is that tablets can be tailored to an individual patient’s needs. During the discussion, Brian Henry, VP of drug product design at Pfizer, was more sceptical about its promise and posed the question of what new capabilities it brings to the table.

“[The technology] is here, there's been a product approved​ in the US [using 3D printing]. If you speak to the universities, you can get 3D tablets printed – you can get multi-component and slow release tablets. The proof of principle is there, we know it can be done.

“The question you have to ask yourself is: why? Additive manufacturing has got to add some value, we're not struggling in this area. So, it needs to be asked: why are we doing it, what's the purpose and what are we making better? Having a pharmacy printer sat in a local pharmacy printing medicine is a long way off, I think.”

Artificial Intelligence

The potential for AI to revolutionise healthcare​ is often talked about, but Nick Lynch, CTO of Pistoia Alliance, said that curbing expectations of the technology will be crucial for practical implementations.

“Human beings are amazing, with what we can do with our brain – to expect something to be artificial and replace that in the short-term, or even in the certain aspects of our lives, is a little bit expectant. I think we have to plan that such changes will be far more incremental. Science has long had a pedigree of using statistics and machine learning and that's early growth of what is now badged as ‘AI’ – but we have a long way to go.

“We have to think of this as a journey and think of what will enhance AI development, which really is the data and our skills to be sceptical of its role. In a way, the hype couldn't get any bigger – if you add ‘.ai’ to the domain of your company, you immediately add 10 times the value to your company.”


The digital revolution sweeping other industries is also having an impact on the pharma manufacturing sector​. Mike Houghton, managing director of process industry and drives at Siemens, was strident in his views that pharma needs to adopt digital processes seen in other industries, and quickly.

“Every year, you have an escalating price increase, whether that be due to wage inflation or whatever it may be. In any business, you have a challenge where competitors are coming into the market and driving your price down – though drugs that are in patent do not suffer this same issue year-on-year. These other manufacturers are forced to try and close that gap every year – so you've got to drive productivity improvement year-on-year.

“If I look at the automotive industry, they'll operate on about 12% year-on-year improvement. If I look at my own manufacturing sites, I'm operating on about 7% year-on-year improvement. I can only do that so much, by driving productivity through standard lead techniques.

“You get to a point where you squeeze that sponge so far until you get nothing else out of it. You need to invest in some sort of technology and we have invested in a digital twin. If I look at my manufacturing site, we produce a bespoke drive and we can only produce it using digitalisation. So, it really was important to adopt it. How can you adopt it? We've gone for a very agile, iterative approach and that's proven quite successful – but it is challenging and you need everyone behind it.

“The pharmaceutical arena is just a bit too conservative and needs to be a bit bolder in adopting digital twin-type technology – lots of other industries use it and it does have a material impact on the business.”

Continuous manufacturing

No discussion on the future of manufacturing would be complete without continuous manufacturing. At the same conference, there was an in-depth discussion​ about what can be expected from this technology, but Henry referred to the technology as a “here and now”​ method – no longer to be talked of as the ‘future’ of manufacture.

“The step-wise process to move from batch to continuous manufacturing, alongside improved automation, is significant. I'm seeing that in the tablet/capsule world and we're seeing it more in the chemistry process-side, I think that's the way [industry] is going.

“There's a lot of conservatism there, mainly within the companies, but I think that's one of the areas we could get to grips with. [The technology] is here and now, our first product produced by continuous manufacturing is going to be available any minute – watch out for a press release.”


On the topic of automation, Houghton again brought experience from other industries to point out how the pharma industry could be working harder to keep pace with innovation.

“When I look at the automotive industry and the pharma industry, in terms of automation – it is miles apart. The pharma industry could make a massive step-change, from a cost reduction and proof of quality perspective, if it adopted automation to similar levels as the automotive industry.

“[Manufacturers] are competing now at a global level. For the salmon farmer in Scotland, it's cheaper for him to freeze it, send it to China, have it processed, repackaged and send back it to Scotland, compared to having it processed in Scotland. That's the competitiveness we're up against right now, and that's why you've got to drive competitiveness on every level of your manufacturing process.”

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