How technology
can reshape
supply chain

Author: Satta Sarmah Hightower

Primarily, pharmaceutical companies focus on developing life-changing drugs. The process usually takes years—but if public health and safety hang in the balance, drugs and vaccines can be tested and unrolled in record time. Innovative technologies are essential to drug manufacturing and distribution, particularly in how they can optimize pharmaceutical supply chain management.

In recent years, several trends have reshaped pharmaceutical logistics and supply chain management. As the industry moves forward, being more nimble and being able to capitalize on emerging technologies will be key to developing innovative drugs and ensuring that the people who need them can access them.

Overcoming supply chain challenges

Getting drugs from research and development into patients' hands is a complex process that involves more than pharmaceutical companies. It also involves critical partners in freight companies, wholesale distributors, pharmacies and hospitals. Every touchpoint along this journey can accelerate the process of providing lifesaving drugs to patients—or it can complicate it.

Most drug manufacturers still lack complete end-to-end visibility, which can cause drug shortages and issues with counterfeiting. Pharmaceutical companies have tried to address fragmentation and limited visibility with product identification codes intended to improve tracking, transparency and product safety. By finding effective uses of emerging technologies, they could spot potential supply chain problems.

Managing logistics is also a challenge. With multiple stakeholders comes multiple systems and processes, which makes data integration and integrity and meeting each buyer's unique requirements more difficult. Different drugs and vaccines also have different packaging, storage and temperature requirements. Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, for instance, is stored in an ultra-cold freezer at temperatures between minus 112 F and minus 76 F. Moderna's, meanwhile, is stored between minus 13 F and 5 F.

Cold chain shipping—which uses technology-enabled thermal packaging, storage and distribution solutions—has become even more critical to addressing these unique challenges. In the coming years, the pharmaceutical industry will lean even more on advanced technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), to make its supply chain safer, more cost-effective and more efficient.

Transforming pharmaceutical supply chain management

AI and IoT technologies can optimize pharmaceutical logistics and supply chain management in several ways.

Drug manufacturers collect vast amounts of data—on the drugs they develop, on patient utilization and on clinical outcomes. But consolidating this data and drawing meaningful insights is an ongoing challenge. AI and IoT technologies, using the cloud for secure storage, can analyze these vast amounts of data and uncover patterns and trends that can accelerate drug distribution without compromising safety or efficacy.

These technologies can also generate predictive analytics that help pharmaceutical companies and their partners improve supply chain forecasting, identify counterfeits before they hit the market and better manage fleets and distribution center operations. The entire supply chain could even be digitized by including IoT-enabled, sensor-based devices from end to end to gather data and identify bottlenecks, such as aging infrastructure or workforce concerns.

These technologies are also critical for cold chain shipping. AI and IoT-enabled monitoring devices can be packaged with medicines or vaccines to monitor their temperatures as they're transported from facilities to pharmacies, hospitals and retailers.

Collaborating with a managed services provider

Many challenges in the pharmaceutical supply chain come down to managing data. Pharmaceutical companies could adopt new tech to increase their supply chain visibility and better manage their end-to-end processes. One way to achieve this is to use 5G and mobile edge computing (MEC) solutions to enhance network connectivity and security.

5G and MEC solutions have the potential to facilitate faster, more secure data transport from data-intensive IoT and AI applications and systems, and that provides pharmaceutical companies and their partners with near real-time supply chain visibility, seamless data integration across various systems, streamlined reporting and compliance and timely access to predictive analytics and supply chain monitoring information.

A managed services provider can bring additional capabilities, like back end support services, such as data backup and recovery and round-the-clock security monitoring, which can reduce the burden on in-house IT teams and help pharmaceutical companies deploy resources to other mission-critical areas.

Pharmaceutical companies do complex, meaningful work every day, but their operations can be further enhanced by leveraging technology to improve pharmaceutical logistics and supply chain management. By using emerging technologies to harness data and unite disparate systems and processes in the supply chain, pharmaceutical companies and their partners can collaborate to turn ideas into transformational solutions.

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