Recent warnings of a potential penicillin shortage in the UK once again places the spotlight on the importance of having a resilient and robust pharmaceuticals manufacturing supply chain, says Kelly Doering, Senior Director, AspenTech.

For many manufacturers, the need for urgent change was first highlighted by COVID-19. The slow-moving, single-threaded nature of the traditional supply chain was quickly exposed as an ‘Achilles’ heel’ in the face of major disruptions driven by the pandemic, especially when rolling out cutting-edge medicines, with port congestion, raw material shortages, and transportation bottlenecks and delays all impacting delivery speeds.

Drive to digitalisation

During the pandemic, pharmaceuticals companies demonstrated their ability to accelerate vaccine development with unprecedented speed. They did this safely, following all regulations for submitting for emergency use authorisation and subsequently FDA submission. Yet, despite this success, there is still more that needs to be done. With inequitable access to medicine and an array of disruptive macro-economic events raising additional challenges, every pharmaceutical manufacturer needs to consider whether their supply chain is robust enough to weather today’s ongoing storms.

On reviewing their existing approach, many are likely to reach the conclusion that they need to recalibrate strategy, strengthen existing architectures and digitalise their systems to help ensure agility and resilience in an uncertain future. But how can all this best be achieved?

The reality of most digital infrastructures across the pharmaceuticals sector today is that they are effectively a landscape of isolated data silos spanning both a company’s internal business processes and those that interlink with external partners Interdepartmental cultural barriers are also common, merely serving to exacerbate this challenge. Recent independent research commissioned by AspenTech, revealed that data silos directly impede cross-functional collaboration for 48% of pharma industry professionals with expertise in drug development or manufacturing.

It is clear that connecting these disconnected data silos into a seamless framework for integrated data sharing and decision-making calls for a unified software solution.

However, many companies lack this unified solution for their interdependent business processes, often because of mergers or acquisitions, factions of business divisions, or lack of digital network leadership and coordination. There is a growing consensus of opinion that technology executives across the pharmaceuticals sector need to urgently address this by implementing a seamless data infrastructure on which to build integrated business planning and scheduling and thereby achieve enhanced data accessibility and visibility.

The connectivity and synchronisation of data and work processes is key. It helps avoid the problem of disconnected data silos as well as helping to achieve increased automation to eliminate human error. The net result is a supply chain that delivers agility, balanced with risk management and resilience.

Getting data sharing right

Good data management and flexible data sharing will be key to the success of digitalisation across the pharmaceuticals sector in the future. Today, the industry still lags behind many others in this regard, in particular, when it comes to the sharing of data outside the firewall. In some cases, there may still be a reluctance to ‘data share’ due to the potential to compromise data security or even a fear of exposing valuable insights to competitors.

However, such hesitation is being increasingly dissipated by the realisation that so long as the right practices, processes and safeguards are put in place, there is mutual benefit in sharing the right data with the right partners, especially when feedback loops are integrated into the exchange.

Enhanced visibility is the biggest end benefit here as manufacturers continue to move towards the new Pharma 4.0 paradigm, with its promise to support increased efficiencies, faster decision-making and real-time system optimisation.

Connecting relevant internal data to and from external partners’ systems is the only way to achieve the web of connectivity needed to realise the promise of Pharma 4.0. This data infrastructure provides the necessary foundation to build executive control towers for real-time visibility and insights across the entire pharma value chain network.

As seen with the recent successes of the vaccine supply chains, employing standardisation, connectivity, integration and control towers provides the infrastructure to empower agility, risk management and resilience.

We continue to live in times of disruption and the latest digital supply chain management tools enable pharmaceuticals manufacturers to have visibility and to simulate the impact of everything from national lockdowns to raw materials shortages on supply chains. Manufacturers can then use the resulting insights to minimise the disruption of supply of critical medicines at times of volatility.

Organisations that embrace such capabilities and technologies will set themselves apart. They will be in the best possible position to navigate the next disruption by embedding the ability to steer a path through with flexibility and speed as a core competency.