In a heavily regulated industry, automation could facilitate compliance while improving quality and spurring innovation.
Once the purview of large manufacturers, advanced automation has come to touch nearly every industry. Increasingly, forward-thinking business owners are identifying automation as the key to maintaining a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace. Yet, even in this age of automation, many pharmaceutical businesses are failing to keep pace with technological developments, despite the progress of other industries.
There’s no reason this should be the case, and many reasons the opposite should be true. Pharmaceutical companies often boast well-funded R&D departments, with exceptionally high-quality standards, and both the funding and the motivation to invest in innovative new methods. And if that weren’t enough, there’s one more reason to consider automation: in an under-automated field, those businesses which make the first move stand to gain the most.
Here are four opportunities for early adopters of manufacturing within the pharmaceutical industry.
1. Robots assist with medication compounding for custom prescriptions.
“High mix low volume” manufacturing applications are often the slowest to introduce new technology. These are situations where there is a large variety of manufactured components for a relatively small output. In the pharmaceutical world, the mixing of custom medications, known as “compounding,” fits this description.
Patients seek custom medications for a range of reasons: they need the medication in liquid rather than pill form; they are allergic to a non-active ingredient in the standard form; they have a unique dosage requirement; they have a limiting dietary restriction; or they have preferences regarding the medicine’s flavor or texture. Compounding pharmacies and outsourcing facilities work from raw chemical ingredients to create these prescriptions mostly on request, although they are sometimes able to predict trends in demand for some more common formulations.
While compounding isn’t a good match for high volume automation, it is a perfect fit for automation solutions that specialize in versatility. In particular, robots can work alongside pharmacologists to perform tasks such as measuring and mixing ingredients, and can switch tasks easily, allowing for a greater range of automation to be performed by one system.
2. Automated sample testing leads to faster turnaround.
Every day, hundreds of thousands of samples are collected from patients and sent to labs for testing. The processes for running these samples still often rely on human operators, and times of high demand can sometimes lead to bottlenecks and delays.
Many of the tests for running samples are now at least partially automated, but more can be done to incorporate robotics into the process, especially to assist during crunch periods. A more automated system can help patients receive test results faster, which can in turn expedite their treatment process.
3. Robot-aided experimentation leads to revolutionary insights.
Discovering new drugs is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Researchers can spend years researching treatments only for a handful of new products to reach the market. Along the way, they will perform thousands of repetitious experiments and tests—many of which are prime candidates for automation.
With robot-assisted bench experiments and testing, pharmaceutical companies can accelerate their research process in two ways. First, the researchers themselves will be able to devote more time toward creative problem-solving and spend less time on repetitive labor. Second, robots can increase the volume at which these experiments happen, allowing for faster turnaround.
4. Advanced monitoring systems improve quality control.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers face stringent regulations in order to protect consumers. Failing to pass these regulations can result in steep fines, even if the failure did not cause any direct harm. Even without these incentives, many companies are motivated to deliver a high-quality product to protect their brand and provide a competitive edge in the marketplace.
Automated systems assist these goals in several ways. First, humans are a quality liability. A human operator is more prone to error and by nature is less hygienic than a machine, which can be easily and routinely sterilized. Second, automated systems can better monitor clean room conditions and offer a warning if contaminants are detected. And third, automated inspection systems can introduce more quality checks throughout the system at low cost and with high veracity.
This final point is a cost-saving advantage as well as a quality-control aid. The earlier a fault is discovered, the faster it can be removed from the system, and the less expense is invested in a product that will ultimately be thrown away.
5. IIoT technologies improve the auditing process.
Finally, auditing is a cost of operations in the pharmaceutical industry. These audits require process documentation as well as proof that the company is following federal compliance standards. To be prepared for these audits, pharmaceutical companies have to build systems into their workflows that collect the appropriate data, so that they don’t lose time trying to track any of it down later only to discover it wasn’t gathered properly.
Fortunately, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) makes it easier to gather data and collect it in a centralized repository. It’s even possible that in the near future, artificial intelligence will be able to automate much of the audit documentation process. When this time comes, having systems in place that can collect all the information an AI needs to complete that work will be a significant aid.
Eagle Technologies can work with pharmaceutical companies to introduce automation to their systems.
As specialists in the automation industry with over seven decades of excellence to our name, we are ready to be the first choice for any pharmaceutical manufacturer ready to upgrade their production methods. We follow principles of continuous improvement within our own company to ensure our automation solutions meet the highest quality standards, and as a measure of that dedication our on-time delivery rate stands at 97%. Contact us today if you would like to speak with one of our representatives directly about how our automation services can meet your needs.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI