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Using big data to stabilize pharma supply chains in an age of disruption

Collection and analysis of big data is rapidly becoming an essential tool in the arsenal of pharmaceutical manufacturers. AI enables many manual tasks to be automated, making processes faster and more efficient.

Using big data to stabilize pharma supply chains in an age of disruption. Collection and analysis of big data is rapidly becoming an essential tool in the arsenal of pharmaceutical manufacturers.

As AI, blockchain, and quantum computing power advance, every pharmaceutical firm must start looking at their own processes and how they need to change.

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The supply chain revolution

In an age of disruption, technology is key to enabling pharmaceutical manufacturers monitor, track and control shipments and their processes.

The supply chain revolution is already underway, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical firms are changing the way they do business; the future winners will be highly automated and digitalized.

Internet of Things (IoT) devices can monitor shipments from vial to patient, while artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are making once laborious processes faster and more efficient than ever before, saving time and labor costs.

The power of big data

GlobalData reports[i] that AI is a fast-growing area of digital health, with digital transformations seen as a potential way to improve efficiencies and control costs. Big data analysis can be enormously powerful in providing insights for business strategy throughout the pharma value chain, including in the acceleration of drug discovery and development, optimization of manufacturing processes, management of supply chains and the creation of innovative sales and marketing strategies.

Digitalization of previously manual processes heralds ground-breaking progress for the pharma supply chain, leading to better data integration and integrity, superior visibility and faster delivery processes through validated data.

GlobalData predicts that big data analytics will play a crucial role in empowering companies, providing them with accurate and actionable insights for more effective and faster decision-making.

Monitoring shipments down to the carton level

Complex processes, across numerous locations, all depend on logistics working in synchronization. GlobalData analysis shows that the journey of medicines and medical equipment, enabled by technologies such as big data analytics, blockchain, and IoT sensors, is set to become more streamlined and secure. Creating and maintaining inventories of medical supplies, especially on a global scale, could help to tackle pharmaceutical supply shortages, address quality control issues, and prevent counterfeit products from entering supply chains.

Products can be tracked by linking purchase with transport orders and warehousing tracking data with in-transit telematics. Real-time tracking updates allow freight forwarders to utilize AI to find the best shipping routes, avoiding blockages and increasing efficiency and sustainability.

Cold chain shipments are particularly vulnerable. To ensure temperature-critical medicines such as vaccines are fit for purpose, cold chains must be carefully monitored, and products tracked throughout the entire journey from manufacturer to patient. Some companies embed IoT temperature sensors within individual cartons to create an effective audit trail.

Managing big data and optimizing digital platforms

Technology is enabling pharmaceutical firms to collect more data than ever before. But this results in huge, complex datasets. While the use of cloud-based scalable databases makes it easier to filter key insights, manufacturers need sophisticated control towers to make sense of the data at their disposal. Having a strong software foundation to deal with this new data is vital.

Big data and AI synergy

Big data and AI have a symbiotic relationship. AI requires large volumes of high-quality data to learn and improve decision-making processes. Over time, the more data the algorithm receives, the more accurate and efficient it can become. Data can only add value when it is properly analyzed to produce actionable results.

To fully utilize the power of big data, firms must react to it in real time, necessitating onboarding and updating of powerful new platforms. Digital platforms designed for the pharma supply chain can increase the value of that data exponentially, and, as seen during the pandemic, can play a significant role in a company’s ability to withstand disruption.

Value in data and automation

Controlant vice-president of sales, Ranald Haig, says that digital platforms are making it easier for companies to operate in this increasingly complex arena. Most pharma companies have increased their digital transformation budget in the past year.

“Automation and real-time data accessibility are key challenges for pharma manufacturers,” he notes. “In a practical sense, the value of real-time visibility is greatest when things are not on track. It’s important to know goods are delayed, or stuck in customs, or too hot, or not where they’re supposed to be. The first step towards managing by exception, is knowing when the exceptions occur.

“Automation is about time and balance. We don’t want to spend time doing something a computer could do automatically. Once information is digitized, you can apply a rule to it, so optimizing digital platforms is about using the very latest technologies to ensure quality data and to fine tune the rules.”

The importance of digital transformation

Adalheidur Pálmadóttir, vice-president of business development at Controlant, agrees that the most important issue right now for pharma supply chains is digital transformation and automation. Teams want to automate processes to free up time to deal with more valuable tasks, she says.

“As an example, being able to automate the release times of medicine with validated data provided by a real-time visibility platform drastically shortens the time spent on shipment investigation.” Pálmadóttir predicts that unit-level tracking is next on the horizon, with pharmaceutical supply chain teams knowing where every single unit is at any given moment.

Agility is digital

Pálmadóttir also says that the lesson of Covid-19 vaccines is that it is possible to ramp up and down the production of pharmaceutical products on a massive scale. Despite no Covid vaccines existing three years ago, billions of vaccine doses were produced rapidly, at scale, and in a just-in-time delivery system, made possible with the latest technological innovations.

As supply chains become increasingly complex, pharma companies will only be equipped to move forward by embracing digital transformation and AI controlled automation, using the most advanced technologies and platforms available.

As AI, blockchain, and quantum computing power advance, every pharmaceutical firm must start looking at their own processes and how they need to change. Pharmaceutical decision makers must think ahead and prepare to take full advantage of whatever innovative technologies are around the corner.