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A digital dose for logistics in Pharma 4.0

Read about how digital technologies are driving disruptive change in the Pharmaceuticals and Chemicals sector.

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.

At the same time, as a side effect of the global lockdowns, another development rapidly took off: Demand for various online medicine and medical equipment ordering apps grew exponentially. According to a recent report by Business Wire, global ePharmacies recorded more than 2.7 Billion visits across 96 countries in the first quarter of 2021 – a growth of 43% compared to Q1'20. Naturally, the ease of ordering medicines online and having them delivered to your doorstep is incredible. But if the correct products are not delivered to the end customer, it can result in a nightmare for the company – customer attrition and loss of reputation.

Those are not the only problems.

Logistics ‘pain-points’ in the Pharma and Chemical industry

Like any other enterprise, getting new products and services to market before competitors at a competitive pricing is the top priority for the logistics players in the Pharma and Chemical industry. Aligning their business to newer IT approaches quickly is therefore crucial, because large logistics players are facing strong competition from tech-savvy regional players and start-ups.

For the Pharma and Chemicals industry, which is one of the most regulated industries across the globe, compliance to country or region-specific government regulations is of utmost importance. This includes pharmacovigilance, which deals with the detection, assessment, understanding, and prevention of drug-related adverse events, and regular audits from internal and external authorities.

Other issues include the danger of counterfeit or expired medicines infiltrating the supply chain, lack of visibility of the overall supply chain, and unplanned refilling cycles.

Adopting a technology mindset

To overcome these challenges, and to initiate a digital transformation, companies should explore digital opportunities with a well-defined digital roadmap, strategy, and digital architecture.

Digitalization can also speed up tedious processes and offer quicker solutions. Read about how T-Systems helped medical insurance company BARMER digitalize the process for the provision of medical aids to their customers in this edition.

The following trending technologies can help companies to stay ahead of the competition:

  • Robotics to the rescue
    Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is part of a larger movement called ‘supply chain automation’, which ranks higher in the list of priorities of companies. Supply chain automation also includes automation of back-offices, transportation, and warehouses. Where social distancing is required, RPA can facilitate integration of the ordering systems to enable a “no-touch” process – from shipment order intake to confirmation. But more importantly, RPA can take care of repetitive, transactional processes – both in production lines and in the supply chain. Other key benefits include shipment tracking and control, inventory control, procurement management, supply and demand planning, quality and compliance, and error-free documentation transfers.
  • Doctor’s recommendations: AI & Analytics

    The next emerging technology player is AI. In a time-sensitive domain like Pharma and Chemicals, AI and Machine Learning can drive seamless logistics management and a faster route to market. Cognitive automation, powered by AI & ML, can provide significant improvements with data access and compute power, compared to traditional tools and human decision making.

Companies can drive shipment consolidation and demand forecasting using AI and Analytics to identify shipping patterns and the impact of external conditions to support on-time deliveries and proactive exception handling.

Predictive Analytics on shipment data can enable correct lane selection, manage transportation capacity, identify failure probability, and provide accurate lead times.

Consolidation and analysis of internal and external quality audit findings from all Pharma customers can support companies with an efficient 3rd Party Logistics (3PL) quality audit process.

Keeping things under control

A man holding a scanner and a clipboard

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.

Conclusion

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. 

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About the author

Sandip Dalvi is an Industry Marketing Expert for Travel, Transportation & Logistics verticals with T-Systems. He has 11 years of multi-industry experience in the supply chain technologies domain.

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