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Pharma Companies Fend Off Obstacles With Digitized Supply Chain

Joy Langley
Terrance Holbrook
Pharma Companies Fend Off Obstacles With Digitized Supply Chain

Pharmaceutical companies deal with challenges and unexpected issues that touch every aspect of the business. While tending to the demands of stringent compliance requirements and production schedules, other priorities such as improving process stability, reducing costs and pursuing continuous improvement are also vying for your attention. Obstacles of every kind are very much a part of the routine. For most organizations, this is likely a day-in-the-life scenario. Fortunately, new digital technologies are freeing companies from this fate.

Technology Trends Shaping the Pharmaceutical Industry

Pharmaceutical development is experiencing unprecedented changes — particularly in the speed and level of complexity of manufacturing processes. Spoiler alert: technology is the biggest contributor to this transformation.

Single-Use Technology: Streamlining the Supply Chain

Once a disruptive technology, single-use technology has become mainstream in pharma manufacturing. Initially, the concept was developed in response to the industry’s need to:

  • Reduce complexity in the pharma manufacturing processes without disrupting the supply chain.
  • Reduce risks of contamination.
  • Cut development costs.
  • Simplify compliance for biopharma manufacturers by reducing or eliminating the need for clean-in-place (CIP)/sterilizing-in-place (SIP) operations.

Single-use technology is economical and efficient because it consumes less water, utilities and chemicals, and it has a smaller carbon footprint then traditional stainless-steel processing. A significant benefit of the technology is it enables manufacturers to improve sterility assurance and quality and develop new therapies more quickly.1

The Emergence of Big Data

Company business units that were once content to stay on their own turf are discovering the need to share data and exchange notes. The convergence of organizational expertise and data management is becoming a mandatory component of business strategies. The upside is it presents a tremendous competitive advantage by fostering more company wide transparency and collaboration.

Pharmaceutical companies rely heavily on clean, up-to-date and relevant data. This is necessary for staying informed of industry and regulatory trends, developing strategies and making the best possible decisions. Advancing technologies are making data more abundant and more focus area-specific. Manufacturing equipment with multiple data gathering sensors is capable of generating upwards of 10 GB of data per second. This concept, referred to as big data, is effectively transforming pharmaceutical development and product life cycle oversight. Still, having access to tons of data can be useful, but what do you do with it? It’s critical to have processes and tools in place for mining, analyzing and consuming data obtained from multiple sources. Otherwise, a lot of valuable data will be left on the table.

Obstacles in the Pharma Industry

No pharmaceutical supply chain is complete without a few hurdles, road hazards and detours — not to mention the consumption of enormous amounts of time and money. The ranking priorities tend to include getting products out the door on schedule, making sure products don’t come back, and keeping budgets intact along the way. Still, seemingly small hurdles can escalate into compliance issues that can stall production, adding more strain to already tight schedules and budgets.

The Nature of (Any) Business

There is a common perception that some manufacturing obstacles just come with the territory of business operations, regardless of the industry or product, these might include:

  • Organizational silos, competing priorities, unclear responsibilities and differing expectations.
  • Inability to share information and data, which often leads to duplicated efforts and rework.
  • Lack of end-to-end visibility and traceability across the organization.
  • Errors, omissions, damaged and returned products.

These issues aren’t always showstoppers, but they can result in bottlenecks and other delays up and down the supply chain.

Mountains of Paper

Mistakes are the portals of discovery. 

James Joyce

Apparently, Joyce never tried to get a regulated product approved and on the market. Manufacturing any product typically involves paper — and lots of it. This means mistakes, quality issues and shipment delays are almost guaranteed. Despite this trend, paper-based systems still seem to be popular due to the perceived low barriers and cost.

Here are just a few of the headaches brought on by paper-based processes:

  • You don’t have the data until it comes to you. By that time, it could be incomplete or outdated.
  • Difficult to be predictive. Without real-time data you can’t see the trends.
  • Most of the time you don’t have the data’s history, which is needed for many reasons such as data integrity compliance. Locating the history is costly and time-consuming.
  • Problems with procedures or materials might go undiscovered until after a product batch is completed.

Disconnected Systems

To benefit from the emerging trend of business unit convergence, companies need a way to actually converge. Unfortunately, businesses using function-specific business and operations management systems remain siloed and unable to share data because it is scattered across different databases, spreadsheets and printed records. Under these circumstances, data is often incomplete or inaccurate, which can lead to costly errors and oversights.

Overcoming Supply Chain Obstacles

There is no reason to continue trudging through manual processes and getting tripped up by unforeseen obstacles. A few tactics that companies can implement across their organizations to stay on schedule include:

  1. Keep doing what you’re doing — only faster.
  2. Encourage production staff to stop making mistakes.
  3. Keep retraining staff in hopes that they can accomplish Nos. 1 and 2.
  4. Double- or triple-check spreadsheets and paper documents in case employees struggle with No. 2, but this is counterintuitive to No. 1.
  5. Attend to production problems as they occur, applying temporary fixes or makeshift workarounds as needed.
  6. Encourage employees to improve their penmanship to make production reports more legible, but still follow tactic No. 1.
  7. Hope that luck and adrenaline can compensate for the lack of planning and having the right tools.

These methods certainly qualify as a strategy for improving operational performance and productivity. Another strategy would be to give technology a chance.

Going Digital

Solutions currently exist that can gather and analyze enormous amounts of data in less time than it takes to set up a new spreadsheet. Departmental stakeholders can instantly retrieve the most up-to-date, focus area-specific data to perform predictive analytics with a high level of accuracy. Smart mobile devices that make it nearly impossible to make a mistake are replacing paper reports.

At the component level, here are some of the key technologies used in manufacturing environments:

  • Internet of things (IoT) – An ecosystem of web-enabled smart devices that collect, send and act on data they acquire.
  • Big data – The ability to quickly gather and aggregate large amounts and various types of data in real time.
  • Predictive analytics – The use of new and historical data to forecast industry activities, behaviors and trends.
  • Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) – The ability to gather data in real time from remote locations in order to control equipment and manufacturing conditions.
  • Cloud computing – Platforms for hosting services and applications over the internet as well as sharing data securely and economically.

Quality at the Source

Taking a tip from lean manufacturing practices, the core principle is about reducing non-value-adding activities and waste. Any task completed outside of an established process is an added cost. Even though quality management is a regulatory requirement, it is often tacked on at the end of production. This makes it an added process, and hence, an added expense.

Ideally, quality and manufacturing should be joined at the hip instead of having their own agendas and priorities. Implementing quality assurance procedures at each phase of the production line minimizes errors and avoids the need for a costly add-on process.

Simplify Your Supply Chain Processes

A basic principle of digital technology is that connecting systems and machines create intelligent networks and automate processes throughout the supply chain. That said, phasing out paper-based processes is actually becoming more of a necessity than an option. Otherwise, as technology continues to evolve, plodding through manual processes will further undermine your ability to keep pace with the industry.


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