Pharma packaging – A health check-up

Prabir K Das, a pharma packaging industry veteran, elaborates on the vital role of packaging and shares his insights on how the packaging industry needs to transform and improve to offer more value and leverage new growth opportunities
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The pharma industry in India is one of the prestigious, progressive and flagship industries, directly connected to the healthcare system, working towards survival and sustainability of human civilisation. Good healthy members of any community are the real assets for the society to propel growth and development of civilisation. Globalisation and consumerisation have created new opportunities to do business beyond boundaries and pharma packaging has spread its wings to cover a wide array of applications. Supply networks are spread out globally to ensure access of essentials to the farthest corners of the world. Geographic and demographic challenges are new opportunities for packaging industry to find innovative solutions to keep the products fresh. Packaging, the protector and trusted carrier of the products, is serving its duties with due diligence to facilitate this.

Packaging, a small word, covers an entire range of products, right from primary protection level to palletisation, to ensure that all products retain their originality throughout the supply chain, till its last use before product expiry. A lot of study, experimentation and feasibility trials are done behind the stage to ensure quality and compliance. Packaging options, material options, primary packaging selection, material qualification, designing of primary, secondary and tertiary packaging, labelling design, vendor selection, compatibility study, stability study, quality, regulatory and customer compliance, trials and scale-up, process design, transport worthiness and so on. Also, factors like dispensing comfort, difficult to clone, pilfer-proofing, tamper evidence, easy to track, brand identity and visibility, disposal ease, etc. are always kept in mind while designing the entire packaging and the processes associated.

While sailing through the challenging year that 2020 was, we all struggled to fine-tune and redefine separate lists on what is ‘need to have’ and what is ‘love to have’ under constrained conditions. Food and pharma, being essentials, were on top of the “need to have” list and were prioritised. Packaging has constantly supported these industries despite the overall industrial crisis due to shutdowns, limited resources, skeletal transportation, absenteeism, etc. Man and material movement were two critical constraints which impacted the entire end-to-end activities. Still, the packaging industry has driven through the major part of the terrain with all sorts of safety precautions and with limited physical interactions and mobility. So, it is prudent to conduct a ‘health checkup’ of the packaging sector in this real need of the hour.

Even though packaging is complementary to the product and is always needed for protection and distribution, it is still considered as a supporting function across the industry, barring few top manufacturers. Majority of the manufacturers don’t have a well-defined strategy or policy to consider it as an independent primary function. In such organisations, it is looked after by Production, Quality or Procurement teams as an extended responsibility. Barring large organisations, packaging function may not be getting the priority that it deserves. We know that a product development cycle time is long and costly. It happens due to various factors, including clinical study and regulatory assessment. Hence packaging is the only option to maintain sustainability in stiff competition through continuous upgrades. Often packaging level activities are more in comparison to product level activities. Yet, resources and infrastructure are often linked or calculated based on deliverable product volumes, not in deliverable pack variants or wide geographic canvas.

Similarly, the overall packaging industry is still under the unorganised sector, unless it is part of any large business house. It is specifically true for the converters, who are sandwiched between the basic raw material manufacturers and the packaging material users. They are mostly MSMEs and often get impacted during such challenging times. The theory is true for machine, equipment and tool manufacturing as well. We still import high-end machines and equipment for automation and many organisations believe tooling from OEM is the best option to comply with product quality and durability. Many testing equipment are also being imported for the same reason. Many converting chemicals, adhesives and inks are also in this list. There is good potential and it is now essential to indigenise all these to be self-reliant in the coming days. It will not only reduce the cost but also have less procurement cycle time with increased employment opportunity. We have talent and resources, they only need direction, encouragement, guidance, assistance and support.

Another important point is that most of the packaging professionals always look for work opportunities in application-oriented user industries, rather than basic materials, conversion or machinery manufacturing units in the industry. That is indirectly narrowing down the scope of employment opportunity, knowledge exchange and innovation in applications. Lateral mobility within these industries can improve knowledge exchange for overall understanding of future trends and innovation opportunity. Many of our raw ideas (so-called ‘Jugaad‘ technology) can be shaped or fine-tuned for innovative solutions and IP protection as well.

The role of regulatory agencies and statutory bodies also may work like catalysts for overall health improvement of the packaging profession/industry. User-friendly guidelines with a well-knit infrastructure and need-based incentives, Periodic cross functional interactions among academic institutes, testing and evaluation centres, pharma apex bodies, industry representatives, regulatory experts will be very much helpful to shape future forecast and readiness to face challenging conditions.

Product packaging, storage, handling and transport are the backbone for safe and secure delivery of the product from the point of production to the point of consumption. Sometimes, even though packaging plays the role of protecting the product, it may not get complimentary support on the other three points and that can have a significant adverse impact. Storage, handling and transport are equally critical from a supply chain perspective. Storage area with controlled conditions as per the product requirement, automated handling system with minimum manual operations and good transportation system with strong infrastructure are always desirable to make the process successful from end-to-end.

In addition to basic packaging, specialisation on associated subjects like paper, plastics and polymers, glass, metals, printing, graphic designing, automation and process control, can always provide extra mileage to excel in the industry. Electronics and digital technology is now also included as one of the prospective areas and are part of packaging and related activities. Now, it is about the use of custom-designed hybrid technologies for convenience and control. All these are creating a lot of new avenues and innovation opportunities.

The journey from ‘Pariah’ to ‘Packaging’ has become challenging and rewarding. Now the onus is with all – Academia, Industry and Regulatory authorities, to effectively nurture and protect the basic essentiality for every product for efficient and effective distribution, not only within the country but also across the globe. The packaging profession is glorious and provides an opportunity for direct connectivity with the consumer for a wide range of products which are being used regularly. I feel proud of being one of the active members of this profession.

About the author: Prabir K Das is one of the first batch alumni (1985 – 87) from the Indian Institute of Packaging, Mumbai (India) and a 30+ years experienced pharma packaging professional. He has experience in various aspects of pharma packaging in development, execution and post commercialisation life cycle management, including Technology Transfer, New Product-Pack Launch, Packaging Validation, Change Management, Quality & COGS Improvement, Automation, Standardization & Harmonization, Track & Trace system etc.

pharma industrypharma packagingPrabir K DasProduct packagingSupply Chain
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