Canadian Manufacturing

How is flexible manufacturing making the pharmaceuticals industry more efficient?

Flexible manufacturing technologies and strategies can help pharmaceutical manufacturers pivot and adapt to new needs and products.

April 14, 2022   by Emily Newton, Editor-in-Chief, Revolutionized

PHOTO: Pharmaceuticals/Global Panorama via Flickr

The global manufacturing industry looks different today than it did a year or even a month ago. Public health and geopolitics are two recent influences on sourcing, manufacturing, logistics and freight. Manufacturers must be ready to adapt to weather whatever type of proverbial storm comes next.

This is especially true of pharmaceutical manufacturing. The industry must be more agile, scalable and responsive than ever. That’s due to the rapid aging of the world’s population – one in six individuals will be 65 or older by 2050 – and health challenges associated with pandemics, water and air pollution, and a warming planet.

Flexible manufacturing is one possible solution to address this growing need.

What Is Flexible Manufacturing?

Flexible manufacturing systems provide the means to quickly respond to emerging changes and challenges. It’s also associated with infrastructure that goes beyond a single process or product and is instead designed with modularity and multiple capabilities at its foundation.

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Examples of flexible manufacturing in motion include:

  • Factory floors are designed to quickly change over assembly lines from one product to another and back again.
  • Smaller-scale and even high-mix manufacturers taking advantage of modular fabrication equipment to provide mass customization.
  • Manufacturers can rapidly ramp up production of trending products such as medications and vaccines when demand spikes thanks to strategic redundancy on the factory floor.

Technologies Powering Flexible Manufacturing

The pharmaceutical sector faces more challenges than most industries. Some of these include global competition, trade disputes and tariff confusion, domestic and foreign regulations, in-house industry quality standards and the constant pressure from shareholders to release new products regularly.

There are a number of technologies making pharmaceutical manufacturing more capable, dependable and flexible.

Modular Manufacturing Infrastructure

More manufacturers are opting for the “ballroom” approach for their factory floors. This is where there is no equipment fixed in place and what’s in play is highly modular.

The ability to pivot from producing one product to another quickly – and without cross-contamination – is a challenge flexible manufacturing is answering through modular infrastructure.

Plug-and-Play Robotics

Modularity is a fast-spreading concept across manufacturing. Even robotic systems are becoming modular with plug-and-play solutions that companies can add and bring online quickly to meet the challenges of the hour.

Single-Use Manufacturing

Single-use bioreactors are another good example of modular manufacturing. These products don’t take much time to bring online, meaning they’re ideal for pivoting to new product lines or scaling to meet demand. Changeovers and cleaning are far more efficient than familiar and larger steel bioreactors.

Data-Driven Analysis

The increasing modularity and digitization of the manufacturing environment bring opportunities to analyze collected data in greater detail.

The largest pharmaceutical companies have been using data to drive their business decisions for years. Now, the falling cost of the technology has put it within reach of smaller operations, as well.

In Bayer AG’s case, data-driven analysis of market locations, demographics and the particulars of each unique flu season helps it keep Claritin in stock reliably. Similar machine learning tools are now accessible to companies of all sizes.

Predictive Maintenance

Embedded sensors continuously monitor equipment conditions, checking for signs of malfunctions like unusual vibrations, sounds or leaks. This allows maintenance to dispatch a technician before failure and the resulting downtime. Having equipment operating as intended is critical for product quality and cleanliness.

More Reliable Product Monitoring

It’s estimated that vaccine waste during the COVID-19 pandemic may have peaked around 50%. This is an avoidable situation. Product monitoring is another way flexible manufacturing makes pharmaceutical manufacturers more efficient.

For example, there used to be a delay between registering an aberrant temperature in a cold-chain storage area and delivering that red flag to someone who could intervene. The connected technologies provided by the IoT and flexible manufacturing mean companies have no excuses to let products go to waste.

Some companies are even adopting private 5G networks to ensure the absolute lowest latency for data as it’s exchanged throughout the manufacturing and logistics environment. There are few industries where wasted products carry as heavy a loss as pharmaceuticals, but flexible manufacturing can decrease defect rates.

Why Is Flexible Manufacturing Relevant?

Pharmaceutical manufacturers want to know: What’s the payoff? Although it’s possible to scale investments in Industry 4.0 over time, even beginning small carries a not-inconsiderable price tag.

The benefits of flexible manufacturing tend to manifest in the following areas:

  • Fast-track drug approval programs: Flexible manufacturing shortens the development phase for new pharma products and makes testing more efficient. It also makes revisiting orphan drugs more appealing since the cost to investigate their potential is lower.
  • Reach the market faster: Global competition in the pharmaceutical industry has never been fiercer. The most flexible manufacturers will outperform market expectations and rapidly get their products to the market. Shorter lead times mean better customer satisfaction.
  • Engage in continuous manufacturing: Continuous manufacturing is a direct consequence of a more flexible infrastructure. This makes it possible to produce vast quantities of a product quickly, after a shortened startup period or at full capacity over a long period.