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Aseptic packaging machines and automatic vial filling machines are just two examples of a concept that is transforming the pharmaceutical industry – automation. While these automated solutions certainly bring advantages, there are challenges too, and these challenges need to be addressed.

Read on to discover more about the major benefits of automation in pharma and the obstacles that must be overcome on the way.

Key Advantages of Automation in Pharma

Let’s start with the advantages. After all, this is why automation is being rolled out in the first place – to improve the development,  production, and distribution of pharmaceutical products. So what benefits does automation provide to the industry?

Accelerating the Route to Market

One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic was the need for accuracy and speed within the pharma sector. A vaccine had never been developed for a virus in the coronavirus family before, so a new inoculation had to be identified, tested, and delivered to medical teams across the globe without delay. At the same time, the development had to be safe and accurate, ensuring a viable solution to protect public health.

This is almost impossible to achieve without automation. Automated processes are repeatable with a high degree of accuracy, and automatic vial filling machines and other solutions achieve throughput rates that human teams simply cannot replicate. Pharma producers have certainly taken notice of this, and use automated technology to help them bring products to market with speed.

Increasing Standardization and Reliability

As the journey to market is accelerated and as capacity grows, fresh challenges begin to emerge. The potential for error increases greatly, particularly with regard to dosages. For example, pharmaceutical product packaging in the United States must clearly display dosage form details, allowing users to clearly see how the product should be taken, and how much of the product constitutes one dose.

Dosing errors are simply unacceptable and can put human life at risk. Automatic vial filling machines and other solutions enable dosage standardization, even as volume increases – something that is crucial for businesses seeking to remain within regulatory guidelines and patients in search of peace of mind and reassurance.

Smoothing a Disrupted Supply Chain

The pharmaceutical industry has become global, bringing together a vast network of suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, medical institutions, and end users. This complex supply chain can lead to problems, however, as a sudden shortage of a key ingredient or component results in a shortfall in patient medication. If patients are denied medication because of this shortage, this is a very serious problem indeed and puts lives in jeopardy.

Automation does not completely solve these problems, but it does help to reduce bottlenecks and points of friction. Extrapolated out across the whole supply chain, this can make a real difference. The risk of delays and shortfalls can be significantly reduced as a result.

Maintaining Aseptic Conditions

Pharmaceutical production relies on complete asepsis. It’s not enough to simply reduce the amount of pathogens and germs that can enter the system – these contaminants need to be eliminated altogether. With manual processes, this can be difficult, as human interaction will always bring the risk of contamination.

Technology such as aseptic filling machines and aseptic packaging machines have an enormous role to play here. These solutions enable key operations to take place in a closed environment without the risk of contamination from human operatives. An environment like this is also useful in maintaining safety during packaging and filling, as personnel do not need to come into direct contact with the machinery itself.

Key Challenges for Automation

In order to reap these benefits fully, and to futureproof their organization, businesses in the pharma market will need to be prepared to overcome some of the biggest challenges posed by automation. It’s only by navigating these obstacles and deploying new technology in a sustainable way that businesses will be able to get the best from automation.

Supporting Functionality on an Ongoing Basis

Increased reliance on automation also means increased reliance on sophisticated technology. This technology needs to be maintained, monitored, repaired, and replaced when required, all of which can be an expensive headache for pharma manufacturers and distributors. These businesses will need to utilize the right monitoring and management software, and adopt new modes of operation that helps them to optimize returns on their investment in automated infrastructure.

Easing Fears in the Workplace

In December 2019, just before the pandemic struck, research suggested that around 37% of American workers aged between 18 and 24 feared that AI and automated solutions would leave them out of a job. Three years later, in the wake of Covid-19, these fears have not gone away. While automation is certainly nowhere near the stage of ‘replacing’ human personnel, it is likely to lead to significant changes in the workforce as traditional supply chain roles are replaced with new ones. Workers will need to be supported in upskilling and training in order to reduce this fear of replacement.

Integrating with Existing Solutions

Automated solutions do not exist in isolation. They will need to be integrated with existing solutions in order to achieve a seamless flow during product development and distribution. As businesses often do not have the budget to completely overhaul their infrastructure, they may need to add technology such as aseptic filling machines on a modular basis – i.e., investing in specific solutions and installing these solutions within existing infrastructure. This could prove challenging, especially when machines are manufactured by different engineering firms and providers.

Businesses Need to Keep Both the Advantages and Challenges of Automation in Mind

Automation is going to be a key part of the pharmaceutical industry in the coming years, which means businesses across the supply chain are going to need to get used to utilizing automated solutions. While this will certainly bring advantages, it will also lead to challenges that must be addressed on the way to optimizing the use of automated processes.