Automation in pharma packaging machinery is helping drug manufacturers to not just increase volumes but also to make their products more safer, efficient and appealing. By Sachin Jagdale
The pharma industry is facing constant pressure to increase production rates and improve efficiency, that too at lower operational costs. This pressure would inevitabley spill over to its allied sectors. Pharma packaging machinery industry is the one whose services are imminent for the growth of pharma companies. Over the years, the pharma industry has evolved and so has the pharma packaging machinery sector. The most significant change visible is the growing automation in these industries.
An evolving sphere
Gone are the days when pharma packaging machines used to be bulky, noise-making and labour-dependant. The new-age versions are relatively silent, light weight, computer software supported, and easy-to-operate. Packagers have understood the gains associated with improved equipment with time. Today, industry experts feel that Indian pharma industry’s success, to a great extent, is due to growing automation in the pharma packaging machinery.
Raj Menon, Founder, Karishma Pharma Machines, says, “In India, automation is a very recent development. Cost of labour is very cheap, therefore as far as possible the tendency is to go for labour-intensive manual/ semi automatic process. However, as more and more companies are now looking to export products, it is becoming mandatory to automate the production as per the cGMP standards. But the bottleneck is that we do not have qualified engineers to run the automatic machines.” Menon has over three decades of experience in the international marketing of pharma packaging machinery.
Anthony D’Souza, Director, Mespack India, opines, “Automation in pharma packaging is evolving very rapidly. Increasingly, sophisticated technologies and strategies are being employed. The competition for use of the valuable one-pack space is getting stronger than ever, especially in developing countries and some in developed countries.” He adds, “Advances in the packaging machines themselves has seen the incorporation of precise and accurate filling mechanisms, as the wrong dosage of a medicine could be life threatening. Gentle handling is also essential and packs should be hermetically sealed for higher product safety. Highest regulatory compliance, hygiene design, flexibility, quick change over and easy change over are evolving at a faster rate than ever.” Mespack India is known for flexible packaging machinery, specialising in horizontal form-fill-seal technologies for flexible sachet, pouch and stick packs.
Automation in packaging machinery has not just helped with quick and quality production but also significantly cut down on the labour requirement. Though the speed of automation has picked up over the last one decade, according to Menon, it has also generated a sense of insecurity among labourers. This, in turn, could be hampering the growth rate of automation in the pharma packaging machinery sector. Menon explains his point of view, “Worker resistance to automation is also another reason for the slow progress of automation in India. Unions fear large-scale layoffs if automation comes in. This is in direct contrast to Europe and the US where the workers themselves ask for more automation so that the work load will be reduced.”
Automation, an answer to spurious drugs?
Governments across the globe are advising pharma companies to implement measures like track-and-trace mechanisms to curb the practice of spurious drugs. Though it will not guarantee complete security from spurious activities, it has been termed as one of the most effective solutions. Major pharma manufacturers are either trying to develop the technology internally or looking for partners. Machine vendors are joining hands with track-and-trace solution providers in order to produce serialisation ready machines. Do these developments indicate that automation is the key to prevent the menace of spurious drugs?
Sandeep Kumar Goyal, Founder and CEO, Sanex Packaging Connections, says, “Not really, it all depends on what steps you take to handle counterfeit, automation simply helps to produce that.”
According to D’Souza, automation is provided to enhance production capability and making high quality product available to customer.
“Automation in totality can’t prevent spurious drugs but could help in providing packs of unique design and concept which are only possible through automatic mechanism, thus adding on to a support to prevent spurious drugs. Spurious drugs can be focussed by R&D of packaging division who could work on it, making pack unique and difficult to replicate,” points out D’Souza.
An expensive route to take?
Any new technology is generally considered expensive. Automation involves a number of experiments, unsuccessful attempts, investments for every new experiments etc. So, will automation of pharma packaging machinery be an expensive affair? According to D’Souza, looking at the benefits offered by the automation, any automation related cost is justified.
He opines, “Needs are simply driven by costs as pharma manufacturers face increased cost pressures throughout the entire production and packaging process. As a result, packaging machines have to become more efficient and user friendly, offering flexibility, easy operation, robustness, intelligence, minimum wastage and protection from interference. By doing analysis of saving related to product wastage, packaging material saving, spares cost, energy saving and manpower saving, the customer can easily conclude that highly automatic machines are the right option. Machines with best automation would guarantee minimum wastage, high productivity and maximum accuracy.”
The Indian pharma industry is touted to be the generic power house of the world. Along with reputed MNCs and big domestic pharma companies there are thousands of small pharma companies operating in the country. Pharma companies with bigger size usually do not have investment-related issues. Smaller companies deal with the local market, with comparatively limited production. So, with few exceptions, they may not require automated packaging machines. However, MNCs and big companies function in the global market. Not only for the sake of higher production but also to meet global regulatory norms, automated packaging machinery is the need for such companies.
“Automation is normally for higher volume and consistent business. So, it all depends on the type of products, its value and the total volume,” says Goyal.
A promising future
As change is the only constant, in future, pharma packaging machinery automation is going to be the norm across the entire pharma industry, irrespective of the size of the company.
“With more and more companies looking for US FDA and cGMP accreditation, it has now become imperative to go in for automation. Even machinery suppliers like us now find that demand for automated high speed machines are more in demand, not just from the big MNC’s but also small and medium scale pharma companies. Manufacturers are gradually phasing out the manual/semi automatic machines from their range and focusing more on fully automatic machines. A noted increase in import of high speed machines from Europe is also now seen. The future therefore belongs to automation,” says Menon.
D’Souza also signs off on positive note, saying, “Automation is undergoing major evolution where robotics and mechatronic systems would be more actively used. This would enable the entire process from start to end to be controlled, monitored and supervised with minimum resources, thus providing best results in terms of productivity, quality and safety. As years go on, regulatory compliance would get stricter and this would be met only due to automation. We can guarantee a future pharma product that is 100 per cent safe for consumption, for which automation will play an important role.”