The COVID-19 pandemic stretched at least three sectors of the healthcare industry to the maximum – Pharmaceuticals, Chemicals, and MedTech. Under pressure to develop and bring to market the most viable vaccine as quickly as possible while limiting the spread of infection, it took players less than 24 months to transform their processes, a performance that normally takes several years. This incredible achievement was made possible by transformative digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Cloud, and more.
Now, let’s take a look at ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), its industrial variant ‘Industrial Internet of Things’ (IIoT), and Blockchain.
IoT helps create a connected ecosystem for Pharma and Chemicals companies by ensuring that every device, machine, and process is linked to a data communications system. Sensors connected to the system can track equipment performance and alert employees to a likely glitch prior to mechanical failure.
Temperature fluctuations can damage temperature-sensitive medicines and chemical products. Whether for Moderna or BioNTech, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson, simply maintaining the individual cold chains for COVID-19 vaccines was essential for their suitability for use on patients and made their global distribution a mammoth logistical project.
In this sense, Pharma IoT can bring more visibility into drug production, storage, and movement by enabling multiple sensors to control factors such as temperature, humidity, light, radiation, CO2 levels, and more. Near real-time non-conformance reporting can also be developed using the IoT framework.
But it is blockchain in the IoT mix that also provides the necessary secure coverage. The Pharma and Chemical cold chains require sharing of sensitive information across multiple stakeholders. Blockchain can provide a secure mechanism for this information exchange between the manufacturer, logistics partner, and customer. Blockchain can also help eliminate errors in time-critical tasks such as environmental tracking, drug tracking and tracing (preventing counterfeit products from infiltrating the supply chain), and proactive interventions in preventing product damage.
Interestingly, it was an IoT Service Button that helped a German multinational chemical company to switch to automation and shorten their “milk run” process, with help from T-Systems’ deep expertise in the IoT ecosystem. The company was facing issues as they lacked a proper control system to manage their collection and delivery points within the factory. The sequence of loading points, controlled by their tractor units, was not standardized; and the alternatives they were looking at were too complex and required high investments.
The benefits accrued by the customer included a high rate of flexibility in operations and a solution that was simple – like plug & play – and from a single source (connectivity, devices, and platform). It did not have any dependency on power and corporate networks due to its wireless data transmission and long runtime. It also provided hotline support for all partners and easy integration via an app for driving instructions. Most importantly, the milk run process could be shortened, efficiently controlled in real time, and made completely transparent.
The global pandemic has affected the Pharma and Chemical industry more than any other sector. The pressure for swift vaccine development and approval resulted in a significant upheaval within healthcare industry. A sector that has been traditionally slow in adopting any new technology has had to swallow several portions of technology doses to remain viable in the ever-changing global conditions and demonstrate what people around the world still pin their hopes on today: "When it counts, we will deliver."
The upheaval will continue. However, with new players entering the market, technology innovations picking up speed, and the regulatory environment becoming increasingly favorable, the road ahead looks smoother for the industry. It has become clear from the perspective of the pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and medical technology providers that – despite the many unknowns that await us – the future is feasible.