Five technologies transforming the supply chain

As business innovation upends every aspect of the supply chain, Pharma Logistics IQ delves into five technologies revolutionizing supply chain activity

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An unprecedented pace of change driven by the implementation of technology in life sciences is driving the supply chain to become leaner, faster and more self-efficient. Automation is being adopted at nearly every stage of the supply chain to improve process efficiency, blockchain architecture is revolutionizing the meaning of compliance and product transparency, and a host of machine-learning approaches are rapidly fastening the pace of order fulfilment for greater patient fulfilment.

In this light, Pharma Logistics IQ has identified five technologies poised to overhaul supply chain operations.

1. Automation for greater efficiency

Warehouse operations such as picking and packing remain labor-intensive steps in the supply chain. However, with the rising implementation of warehouse-automation technologies such as autonomous mobile robots and aerial drones, manual processes are fast becoming redundant and prone to less human error.

According to an article by McKinsey & Company: “Today's automation systems are more capable and flexible than ever. Fast picking systems can now handle between 1,000 and 2,400 picks per hour, thanks to advanced vision technology that allow them to handle objects presented in arbitrary positions or orientations.”

The potential impact of automation technologies can also go beyond the operational improvements in the warehouse. Automation can encourage pharma companies to handle fast-changing multichannel and omnichannel requirements efficiently while supporting same-day and next-day delivery.

Amid an industry-wide digital transformation of life sciences, the drive to implement automation in the warehouse will provide pharma and logistics companies with more strategic freedom in their network-footprint decisions and ensure they remain lean and agile in a competitive market.

2. Smarter security and visibility with blockchain

While blockchain has primarily been associated with cryptocurrencies, the technology yields the potential for improved end-to-end visibility, transparency and security across global supply chain processes.

Blockchain creates this notion of immutability. No record can ever be erased, offering supply chain managers a solution to track the source of goods and establish trust in shared supplier information.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts: “To lessen stress on the service supply chain, by 2023, 25 per cent of office management and enterprise services will leverage blockchain to improve process accuracy and lower expedite costs by 45 per cent.”

With the evolution of blockchain expanding its applications to further supply chain visibility, pharma companies can also look to deploy blockchain to prevent information leakages, help identify counterfeit items and fraud, and pinpoint at-risk suppliers in order to demonstrate regulatory requirements are being met.

3. Machine learning for global supply chain optimization

Every modern supply chain has a vast treasure trove of data that can unlock insights to optimize global supply networks. By harnessing machine learning technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), pharma companies will be able to proactively manage data and optimize strategic sourcing relationships that will increase customer satisfaction and boost sales.

According to IDC’s annual predictions list: “By the end of 2021, half of all manufacturing supply chains will invest in AI for supply chain resiliency, garnering a 15 per cent spike in productivity.”

Coupled with predictive analytics, the AI transformation will go much deeper than providing supply chain practitioners with smarter processes and functions. It will give pharma companies access to the tools to aggregate and analyze data from multiple sources ensuring complete visibility throughout the cold chain, allowing supply chain managers to predict hurdles and allocate resources properly before the cold chain process starts.

4. IoT to transform manufacturing and supply output

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the urgency required to get life-saving medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to market quickly around the globe. The Internet of things (IoT) has already proven to be critical in providing pharma companies with the right tools to identify Covid-19 symptoms and rapidly grant patients with better treatment, but it can also have a profound impact on supply availability by improving batch processes in manufacturing.

Manufacturing, a process that plays to the strength of IoT, would be more efficient if it were continuous. Continuous manufacturing can respond more flexibly to demand by running processes for longer to speed up drug development for new medication, while boosting activities in sustainable development.

5. 3D printing for a patient-centric product supply chain

In line with pharma businesses becoming more patient-focused, the growing appetite for personalized products and increasing demand for made-to-order and localized products, 3D printing is becoming a key focus for overcoming material complexities in the supply chain.

While manufacturing products in certain locations can be done at a relatively low-cost, managing a global logistics network can not, especially as transportation and trade costs are predicted to rise by 15–31 per cent due to disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to metal additive manufacturing technologies, however, supply chain players are able to decentralize production closer to where demand is, suggesting the industry will see a slow decrease in logistics and transportation cost and a reduction of carbon footprint emission across the supply chain.

Reaffirming predictions, Matthias Heutger, Senior Vice-President for Strategy, Marketing and Innovation at DHL, commented in an article on the future of 3D printing: “I don’t see 3D printing replacing traditional manufacturing of standard items, but it does have the highest potential to disrupt industries specialized in the production of highly complex and customized products.

“In these segments, there will be changes in the patterns of goods transportation, both in terms of volume and flow. Along with the increased need for mass customization and on-demand printing, inventory levels are likely to decrease, as companies switch to a “build-to-order” model.”

In this digital age where the manta is “transform or be redundant”, what these five technologies demonstrate is a critical importance of implementing value-added services to remain competitive in a market continuously evolving.

For more solution driven insights to enhance your supply chain processes, dive into our exclusive reports on maximizing operational efficiency in pharma manufacturing and a guide to responding to Covid-19 in pharmaceutical supply chains.