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The Pharmaceutical Industry is often considered as an empire populated by giants: big, powerful and utterly slow. Traditionally focused on scientific Research and Development at the core of their activities, several Pharmaceutical companies grew in the course of the last century on the foundation of innovative therapies, often aimed at addressing some of the most poignant health challenges worldwide. With the landscape substantially changing in the last two decades, by example through the advent of Generics firms and the flourishing of several biotech start-ups, so has the investment focus for the most established players in the Market. Functions traditionally considered ancillary to the business surged to higher levels of relevance, including Supply Chain, which became front and centre in the overall pipeline lifecycle management.
Supply Chain itself, on the other side, developed as a discipline in both corporate and academic environments, in a ride boosted by contextual factors including Globalisation, Outsourcing of non-core competencies, Mass customisation, Business Continuity Risk, Environmental pressures, Technology (Christopher 2011), among the others.
In this context, Technology is of particular relevance, as several of the latest advancements seem to properly lend to adoption in the Supply Chain space.
Large online retailers are leveraging Big Data to predict customer behaviours and provide purchasing recommendations, hence increasing revenues, demand forecast accuracy and product availability. Similarly, electronics manufacturers have started installing IoT sensors on some of their appliances,in an effort to anticipate the demand of spare parts by measuring throughput in real time.Likewise, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning allow to make sense of big data, such as using social sentiment to strategically position inventory in the network.
In the logistics space, Autonomous vehicles have a huge potential to emerge as an alternative to truck drivers for long-haul distances, whereasDroneshave been used for deliveries, as well as inventory counts in large distribution centres.
Finally, Blockchain might be the ultimate solution to the daunting issue of data sharing across different parties, which might bring the level of visibility required to optimise the amount of inventory held along a whole Supply Chain, thus reducing the overall production and level of obsolescences (with the effect of generating not only cost efficiencies, but also environmental benefits).
And this list of examples is all but exhaustive.
With such unprecedented opportunities, what is the state of play in Pharma Supply Chain? While the Industry is undoubtedly behind several others, it seems to have gone long strides in the last five years, even more so in the last twelve months, moved by the need for identifying innovative solutions to keep supplying patients with life-saving medicines in the midst of a global pandemic.
Therefore, assuming the same pace of technology uptake and fast forwarding ourselves by a decade or two, we could imagine a futuristic scenario such as the one depicted in the infographic, where a patient is injected with nano-sensors that detect new risks and diseases from within their body. The information is automatically relayed to the treating physician, for them to decide upon the treatment and alert the nearest pharmacy for dispensation. The pharmacy, in turn, shares consumption data with the manufacturers so as to get replenished with the raw ingredients required to 3D print the product at the pharmacy itself or in dedicated local manufacturing centres, by utilising machines certified by the competent drug agencies and with in-line quality testing data provided to the latter in real time. The on-demand 3D printed medicine is eventually dispensed directly to the patient’s home, potentially through drone delivery. The whole information travels,in this multifaceted ecosystem, across a unified blockchain.
In this scenario, just one in endless possible instances, Pharma Supply Chain is radically transformed through accurate demand forecasting based on real time information on actual consumption, decentralised manufacturing, delivery of raw materials or semi-finished goods instead of finished products, and in a much more granular fashion, as well as direct to patient distribution performed in a number of ways, including drone deliveries.
Sure, we can start pinning down the whole set of issues associated with patient’s confidentiality, data integrity, quality assurance, security, etc., all very fair concerns. But, using some analogies, what did we think of a GPS device thirty years ago? Could we imagine automated algorithms that study our behaviours in real time to propose customised ads? Would have we even consideredpossible the idea of publicly (and willingly) giving out information about our likings, friends, whereabouts, physical activities, etc., similarly to what we commonly do today through social media?
Under the proper warnings, ethics watchouts and regulations, we might find ourselves projected in a world where our health is more preserved and promptly acted upon in a seamless, semi-automated and just-in-time way. The information is fluid but secure, flowing flawlessly to ensure effective and efficient healthcare. Patients are healthier, while the cost of healthcare is greatly reduced for the overall system.
Is Supply Chain digitisation the Holy Grail to the future of Pharma?