Ask the Expert: Automating Processes to Overcome Disruption

Ask the expert, Pharmaceuticals

How can pharmaceutical manufacturers and their supply chain partners use automation to mitigate future risks? 

In March of 2020, the world almost literally stopped due to COVID-19. The supply chain was hit especially hard due to distribution point bottlenecks, moving products across closed borders, restrictions on the number of people in one place, and more. Local and regional shutdowns, trained employees who were out sick, and product shortages/outages all played a part in revealing how fragile the supply chain truly is. These issues led to industry disruptions that have forever changed the supply chain.

Building a new normal

All those challenges also left many organizations without the supply chain visibility to determine where issues are currently happening or be able to prevent future ones from occurring. This presented an opportunity for technology and process automation to become a critical tool to keep “business as usual” in the new normal of the post-pandemic world. Beyond the immediate supply chain disruptions of the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry was also challenged to quickly develop, manufacture, and distribute billions of vaccine doses for combatting the COVID-19 virus. Many got to work to create effective vaccines that used new and existing technology and procedures. Some of those medicines require transportation via the ultra-cold chain as low as -80°C, which is considerably colder than the normal transportation and storage temps of 2-8°C. Any break in the required temperature during transport or storage can render those vaccines ineffective or unsafe, and these vital products would have to subsequently be destroyed.

Automation is the key

Leaders in pharmaceutical manufacturing and supply chain realized with all of the new hurdles to overcome that they had to find innovative solutions. Automating processes and reporting offered opportunities for improving quality control and release times. During transportation and distribution, products change hands, often multiple times.

The vaccine distribution via the ultra cold chain created unique issues, and managing quality excursions is crucial to delivering products. This can be done through automated alerts that are escalated to the appropriate parties as a way to prevent quality issues from happening. Stakeholders are notified of a specific problem—such as temperature deviations, incorrect locations, split pallets, suspected theft, and more—and have ample time to investigate the problem. These logistics escalations and alerts are likely to affect product quality, but many can be prevented with the right technology.

Automation can also help reduce human errors by initiating processes that might otherwise be overlooked. Something as simple as forgetting to turn on a data logger or not recording certain information can have large downstream implications and increase the likelihood of quality issues. Additionally, when processes are automated, organizations can decrease costs through a variety of ways. Automation offers quicker and safer batch releases by monitoring the product quality throughout transportation and distribution. If there are no excursions, the products can be released right away without further investigation, thereby saving considerable costs. When excursions do occur, real-time monitoring can help quality teams quickly identify the problem and then make smarter, faster, data-driven decisions regarding product quality, again saving investigation costs and employee time.

Reporting capabilities are another critical function of automation. After data is captured in real-time, that information can help pharmaceutical companies identify optimal routes, preferred carriers, and external points of interest. Instead of “drowning in data,” supply chain leaders can get real-time, automatic reports that provide active shipment data and powerful insights into supply chain operations. This information not only allows enterprises to proactively respond to issues before products are compromised, but also to support broader strategic decisions.

Real-time results with automation

Companies that have started down the path of automation triggered by specific predetermined rules are seeing tremendous outcomes. Automation can cover business, logistics, and quality release processes, for example. It includes automation of communications and data sharing among parties, providing both scalability and sustainability.  

For example, an order is entered into the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and a shipment is created to the designated customer and site. When a shipment arrives, a shipment report is automatically created. It is then emailed to designated onsite stakeholders and to an internal quality team so that it can be signed off on. Recipients know automatically if the pharmaceutical products should be placed on hold pending further review or if they may be released to the recipient. By integrating business systems and control towers, automated email notifications could be sent to designated recipients once a product was shipped, once it was received onsite, and when/if the box and logger needed to be returned. Such a notification could automatically trigger invoicing in the ERP system.

Looking forward, the industry can track against other metrics in addition to temperature data, including shipments being separated, split up, arriving at the wrong location, suspected theft, suspected product damage, and so on. This data can be tied into the automated notifications that are pushed through a cloud platform and compiled into reports that offer improvement measures, with emails being triggered to notify the right people that action must be taken. These metrics will further enable manufacturers to build on their patient and customer-centricity models, automating logistics while ensuring product safety. The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent vaccine distribution have shown how the industry can leverage automation to help accelerate agility and transparency moving ahead.

As the industry advances, predictive and prescriptive reporting through automation can show organizations what is likely to happen, for instance, if a product is shipped a product with certain packaging through a specific lane during a particular time of the year. Through real-time visibility, automation, and data, pharmaceutical companies can gain more comprehensive insights into business operations, supply chain operations, suppliers, and partners.

About Ada Palmadottir

Ada Palmadottir is Business Development Director at Controlant. With more than 20 years of experience in pharmacy, management, and technology, Ada has extensive international experience in sales, operations, and marketing, specifically in the areas of product, vertical alliance sales, and partnerships related to pharmaceutical products. She is a licensed and experienced pharmacist and earned a Master of Pharmacy from the University of Iceland and a Master of Business Administration from the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo. Ada has been working with Controlant for the last eight years. 

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