Digitally securing the pharma supply chain4 min read


Errors in the pharmaceutical supply chain can lead to late delivery, increased costs and poor quality products, with a detrimental impact on consumers. With supply chains becoming more complex, it’s even more important that operations are streamlined. So how can organisations use digital technologies to improve the pharmaceutical supply chain and minimise the risk of errors? A new article in Supply Chain Digital magazine offers some suggestions.

In 2009, consumers of Tylenol, the painkiller reported a musty odour from the product. In response, Tylenol’s manufacturer Johnson & Johnson launched a massive recall programme. It was found that wooden pallets used to ship the product were causing the problem. The recall cost Johnson & Johnson $900m, as well as reputational damage to the Tylenol brand.

In a new article Jonathan Wilkins, director at automation parts supplier EU Automation, identifies four trends that make it increasingly challenging for pharmaceutical organisations to prevent similar supply chain errors. He suggests that, by implementing digital technologies, organisations can improve supply chain operations and ensure that consumers receive a high standard of healthcare and safe and effective medications.

He identifies these trends as: globalisation, personalised medicine, biologics and counterfeits.


Interestingly, the pharmaceutical industry has taken longer to globalise than other industries. High-income countries still dominate production and consumption. But, as with other industries, pharma supply chains are gradually globalising.

However, the globalisation of pharmaceutical supply chains increases costs and creates more complication. Despite this, customers expect faster and faster deliveries, so efficient transport, effective tracking and stringent quality control are key.

A recent report by the Access to Medicine Foundation found that one of the major causes of antibiotic shortages is a lack of visibility in the supply chain. Organisations can increase supply chain visibility using cloud technology to ensure real-time sharing of secure data.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology can also make it easier to work with people in other countries and, if workers do not have access to AR or VR technology, video conferencing platforms, such as Skype, can enable them to participate in meetings, share screens and send files in real time.

Personalised medicine

On average, it takes three years from submitting a drug to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or European Medicines Agency (EMA), to the drug reaching a patient. This is not fast enough for personalised medicine — patients with serious illnesses often cannot wait three years for a suitable drug. So the supply chain for personalised medicine must be rapid, without having a negative impact on product quality or compliance.

Automation systems may be a way if accelerating the supply chain for personalised medicines while meeting the quality and compliance requirements. Indeed, in support of automation technology finding its way into the personalised medicine industry, Innovate UK has up to £6 million to invest in technology that will help businesses address the challenges involved in developing personalised medicines.

Personalised medicines are specific for individual patients. If the wrong patient receives the wrong drug, the consequences can be dramatic. Therefore, traceability along the supply chain is extremely important. So, automated manufacturing lines can be equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, to track and trace products during manufacturing, packaging and delivery and radio waves can also be used to communicate information between a reading device and a product.


From 2018 to 2022, the global biologics manufacturing market is expected to show a compound annual growth rate of over nine per cent. To be prepared for this growth, pharmaceutical supply chains should adapt to the additional requirements of biologic drugs.

The stability of biologics is complex. They are made from living organisms or contain components of living organisms. They often degrade by multiple pathways and these pathways may vary at different stages of shelf life. Also, many biologic drugs contain proteins, which can undergo slight structural changes in response to stresses such as temperature excursions. Slight protein structural changes can have large effects on the therapeutic properties of drugs.

To make sure biologics are safe for consumption when they reach patients, the supply chain must be fast and physical conditions along the supply chain must be tightly and consistently controlled, to minimise degradation and structural changes.


A recent estimate by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicated that one third of all medicines sold worldwide are counterfeits. As well as damaging the reputation of pharmaceutical companies and causing loss of revenue, counterfeit medicines can cause considerable harm to consumers.

Despite this, the prevalence of counterfeit drugs is expected to increase as global costs for healthcare rise and technological advancements make it easier to make exact copies of drugs and their packaging.

Several technologies can help protect pharmaceutical products against counterfeiting. Tamper-proof packaging is a familiar approach – but it’s one that is easy to copy. More advanced technology might include holograms, embedded images, digital watermarks and invisible printing. They all require regulatory approval, so they are hard to replicate. Also, chemical and biological tags can offer highly secure authentication, but are more expensive than other options and more challenging to implement.

Take a look at this article for more information.

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