Robotics, A.I. and Blockchain Redesign The Pharma Supply Chain

3D printing will allow pharmacies to produce drugs on the spot. Blockchain technologies will help fight counterfeit drugs. These are just bits and pieces, but the entire process of the pharmaceutical supply chain will be affected by disruptive technologies. Let me show you a comprehensive overview how innovations will make it more efficient, faster and cheaper than ever before.

Artificial Intelligence will design drugs in a flash

The incredibly fast pace of the development of Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) already has an impact on medical imaging and radiology, but it has the potential for inducing a much more comprehensive transformation in healthcare. Regarding pharmaceutical supply chains, A.I. solutions could fundamentally alter the traditional process of designing drugs. They could significantly shorten the drug production circle and help out pharma in finding new drugs without burdening clinical trials and accumulating costs.

The traditional drug discovery method is basically a “trial and error” process with which it takes about 12 years and $2.9 billion to bring a new efficient drug on the market. Moreover, “error” here is huge as only very few experimental drugs ever see the medicine cabinet. On the other hand, smart algorithms using the power of ANI teach themselves complex biochemical principles and the factors that are ultimately the most predictive when it comes to the effectiveness of a drug. This way, they could analyze hundreds of millions of small molecules and potential interactions, be that linear or non-linear, almost at the same time. Tech giants, as well as plenty of start-ups in the US, Europe or China, are building artificial intelligence solutions to design personalized drugs and treatments faster than any traditional healthcare service.

Robotics and augmented reality will support drug manufacturing

Regarding pharmaceutical manufacturing, the magic word is robotics. With its need for speed, repeatability, and verification, it is ideally suited to benefit from robot automation. Manual labor is placed at a disadvantage when it comes to robots’ speed, consistency or cost-efficiency. Not only does the robot perform its tasks exactly as it is told to, everything it does can be thoroughly documented. Global robotics company, Denso Robotics, for example, offers the three most commonly used types of robots, cartesian, SCARA and articulated robots for different tasks in pharmaceutical manufacturing.

In the same way, as Robi’s example showed, robotics could have a big impact on pharmaceutical distribution chains, too. Robotic medical dispenser systems, medication management solutions such as the PharmASSIST ROBOTx help any given facility “right-size” its system for its volume. It is also an emerging best practice that these robots are designed with robust data mining capabilities, so pharmacies can gain valuable insights about their traffic and efficiency all the time.

Although robotics might replace the most monotonous and repetitive tasks of drug production and distribution, manual labor will continuously be used for more complex assignments requiring creativity and problem-solving skills. Digital technologies could give a helping hand here, too. For example, laborers could learn the trick of the trade faster and more efficiently through augmented reality. Moreover, their training would also not require extra workforce, so colleagues currently assigned with the coaching of newcomers might get different tasks. In another scenario, exoskeletons could aid workers to lift heavy loads and support them in enduring long hours of standing or other uncomfortable positions.

Alternative routes for production: 3D printing drugs in pharmacies

While automation and AR-supported workforce considerably speed up the process of manufacturing and enables the production of large quantities of the same medication, 3D printing would allow pharma companies to create drugs in more effective dose formats, and enable low-volume production coupled with personalized medicine.

The idea is not that far-fetched as you think. In 2016, the FDA just approved an epilepsy drug called Spritam that is made by 3D printers. It prints out the powdered drug layer by layer to make it dissolve faster than average pills. Scientists working with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have developed a new 3D printerthat can synthesize 14 different classes of a small molecule using a set of chemical building blocks.

UK-based FabRx is already experimenting extensively with the technology, and they told The Medical Futurist that they plan to place the first printers in hospitals for the first in situ trials in less than 5 years. They believe the technology will be available everywhere in 5-10 years. However, the FabRx team was cautious about the potential of the GP e-mailing the drug prescription and the patient 3D printing it at home.

Blockchain securing distribution chains

Regarding drug distribution chains, the network where medication gets from pharmaceutical companies through distributors, hospitals, and pharmacies to the patient, the most important challenge is ensuring the safety and security of the products themselves. The issue of counterfeit medicines, as the dark side of networked markets and globalization, has become increasingly pressing, both in terms of the economic cost of this global black market and the risk to human life that comes from taking counterfeit drugs. In many developing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America, counterfeit drugs comprise between 10 percent and 30 percent of the total medicines on sale. That should definitely be changed, and the technology to help is the same that secures crypto-currencies at the moment: blockchain.

The technology offers security through transparency. It might work as follows: barcode-tagged drugs could be scanned and entered into secure digital blocks whenever they change hands. This ongoing real-time record could be viewed anytime by authorized parties and even patients at the far end of the supply chain. This would make it much more difficult for criminal networks to sell their counterfeit drugs on the market.

However, the advantages of blockchain for pharma do not stop there. Drug developers running clinical trials might be able to share clinical data and medical samples more securely and simply, while in healthcare, vaccine registries could be more easily set up and relied upon. And while blockchain underpins the digital currencies demanded in ransomware attacks, the technology could also play a role in securing sensitive industry data from malicious attack.

Overall, pharma should embrace digital health technologies or small companies coming from a garage might beat them at speed, patient centricity, and cost (the triad of success in the digital age).