The Automation Frontier in Drug Manufacturing

In winter 2010, the pharmaceutical industry was celebrating the possibility of continuous processes coming to the industry. Continuous flow manufacturing processes are those that run continuously, producing the orders on a fully or semi-automated line. The best example of this type of manufacturing is performed in the automobile industry. Continuous flow manufacturing is best used in producing items that have a consistently high level of demand. Some of the more commonly used drugs today fit this bill, so the pharmaceutical industry is looking into making the change.

Issues to Consider

The current methods for manufacturing pharmaceuticals are batch manufacturing. The orders are completed between 100 and 300 days in batches. In field of pharmaceutical manufacturing, there is more than pills to consider. Drugs come in the form of creams, pills, capsules, and gels as well. They are created to be inhaled from aerosol cans, injected from pre-filled syringes, and used in many other application forms.

Until now, it was thought that batch manufacturing was the only way to produce items that were not only so versatile in makeup, but also in composition. From antibiotics to synthetic hormones and a myriad of other types of medicines, the drugs all have delicate chemical compositions that require strict separation in the manufacturing process. For a long time, it was believed that this separation was not possible in a heavily automated process. That changed when the pharmaceutical research and development teams put their heads together for a solution.

Why so eager?

Continuous flow manufacturing relies on manufacturing only the orders at hand, using the materials needed to fill those orders. They are filled on a schedule that allows time for the inventory specialists to order the proper materials and get them loaded. Techs and engineers program the machinery to handle the order, while the workers on the line operate with the automated equipment to get the order filled.

Just think of an automobile assembly line: It is a continuously running line, where the car is created from start to finish without ever leaving the line. The cars are constructed to the buyer’s specifications and painted the desired colors, all while being continuously inspected and tested. The cars that roll off the assembly line are not identical, but they are still manufactured much more quickly than if the cars were created in batches and customized individually.

That is only one of the reasons that the drug manufacturers want continuous flow manufacturing—faster manufacturing times. One estimate is 10 days for a completed order as a result of continuous flow, a fraction of the current batch manufacturing rates in the industry. The time in batch manufacturing is so lengthy because the plant creates a batch of one type of product, then must retool the equipment to create a different one. Orders are filled from the completed batches. In addition, there are the potential cost savings of having only the inventory needed on hand, and eliminating the loss of wasted batches that sit untouched. The companies can operate in a leaner fashion.

What are they waiting on?

The diversity in the drugs manufactured even by a single plant is still a difficult problem. You can’t process pills on the same machines that produce creams. Many drugs have chemical interactions and cannot come in contact with one another. There are also contamination issues. The challenge to the industry then is to find a grouping of machinery and techniques that can easily manufacture different types of drugs with a minimal amount of complication. This machinery also needs to be cost effective, as no company will adapt a process that costs more in time and money than it is likely to save. Continuous flow manufacturing will require overhauls of the plant floors, retraining of staff and operators, and redesign of entire supply chains. However, the industry is starved for a way to jump onto the continuous flow bandwagon, and once an effective method is perfected, the industry will undergo the (still considerable) renovations with a smile.

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