Advancing ‘Smart Pharma’ Capabilities in 2023 and Beyond


Q&A explores new opportunities to strengthen supply chain resilience—and build on the lessons learned.

Samantha Betancourt

Samantha Betancourt

Since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical organizations and their partners have been tasked with establishing new innovations to keep supply chains running as smoothly as possible. Refining approaches in “smart pharma” has been one area of focus. Those could include, for instance, the application of smarter data management and storage methods, to the increased use of data automation to offset strained resources in manufacturing and distribution. The goal is to continue to advance broader industry efforts in digitalization.

Pharmaceutical Commerce recently connected with Samantha Betancourt, head of strategy and marketing at UPS Healthcare, to discuss the pathway for smart pharma in helping address current and future supply chain challenges.

Betancourt has more than 20 years of experience in areas such as global logistics planning, supply chain analytics, as well as various commercial and operational roles. Before joining UPS, she held the position of vice president, supply chain and external operations at Ortho Clinical Diagnostics. Her industry involvement has ranged across contract manufacturing, telecommunications, technology, pharma, and medical device.

It’s no secret that over the past few years, factors such as the pandemic and less manpower or reduced resources at certain journey points have impacted the clinical and commercial supply chains. What do you believe industry leaders in pharma, logistics, distribution, etc. can do today to eliminate some of these continued challenges—and find creative ways to keep these supply chains flowing consistently?

The pandemic revealed the healthcare industry’s overdependence on offshoring sources, equipment, and material goods. The dependency on far away cross-border sources combined with lower in-house and supplier managed inventories became an Achilles heel when rolling stay-at-home orders impacted production and border shutdowns impacted product flows. This led to an increased need for deep-frozen and cryogenic storage. Storage at these temperatures is not new for the logistics industry but will continue to be an important requirement in the coming years.

Here are some steps UPS Healthcare is taking to optimize our customers’ supply chains:

  • Continued supply chain disruptions: Weather disruptions and geopolitical disturbances will continue to impact manufacturing and the flow of goods. Whether it’s labor disruptions, shifts in manufacturing, or the added strain on the global freight market, problems and pressures within supply chains will remain.

  • Enhanced costs and complexities of scale: The growing focus on sustainability, changing trade agreements, combined with growing demand will continue to put pressure on the supply chain. Shipping compliance and costs can be a major barrier to growth, especially as companies continue to expand globally.

  • Expanded players in the value chain: Visibility, chain of custody, and quality control continue to be crucial in the healthcare industry. As the cold chain grows to include more players responsible for smaller pieces, coordination and collaboration are increasingly critical.

  • Increased sustainability requirements: While the initial investments may seem daunting, reusable packaging cuts down on single-use waste and can drive significant cost savings and better performance.

  • Intensified efforts to de-risk supply chains: To avoid future risk, companies are actively seeking flexible alternative sources that are closer to home for their drugs and devices. These types of operations can reduce expenses and complexity. It shows in enhanced control over products, and in moderation of the financial impact of restrictions on shipping and deliveries. Simply being in the same time zone as production and shipping simplifies business and improves collaboration. This relocation, called nearshoring, isn’t simply theoretical. It’s happening now. Friendshoring or lowering dependency on countries with instability while growing manufacturing presence in countries with favorable government policies, will also continue to increase.

  • Focus on quality: As healthcare needs around the globe grow increasingly complex, specifically with such emergent new diseases and faster degrees of spread, the industry will need continuously more sophisticated transportation logistics and networks that can be quickly executed and enabled with a reliable quality management system to ensure quality throughout the chain of control.

  • Global cold-chain network: Leading cold chain providers are investing in futuristic cold storage facilities, along with high-standard, sustainable, innovative packaging and new active and passive transportation technologies. These are critical components in ensuring that biologics, pharmaceuticals, cell and gene therapies, and other contemporary treatments can be safely and efficiently delivered to all corners of the globe.

  • End-to-end supply chain visibility: By improving supply chain visibility, industry leaders can gain a better understanding of their supply chain and identify potential challenges and disruptions early on in the process. This can help them to create improved efficiencies and proactively address issues before they become major problems to ensure a steady flow of goods and services in a timely manner.

How are innovations in digitization, analytics, and automation working to improve approaches in pharma technical development? How, in turn, can they help enhance the patient experience?

Digitization, analytics, and automation mean better patient outcomes, driven by continued innovation. Dealing with a global pandemic, and subsequent and more frequent natural disasters, the healthcare industry has continued to build upon what it’s learned by surviving these crises, which have provided a solid foundation to help future generations thrive in other areas.

Digitalization allows for the collection, storage, and analysis of large amounts of data that can be used to inform the drug development process. By analyzing data from multiple sources, companies can gain insights into patient preferences, outcomes, and unmet needs to develop drugs and treatments that better meet patient needs and enhance their overall experience.

With the help of new data, we are also seeing shorter cycles from development to deployment of new vaccines, therapeutics, and technology like cell and gene therapy to fight whatever comes next. Vaccine delivery continues to create long-term value in future access to new drugs, but only constant new investment in innovation will give patients around the world the medical access they need, when and where they need it.

Companies such as yourself are proponents of using smarter data analytics to provide a so-called smarter pharma experience. Can you elaborate on this concept of “smarter pharma”—is it basically about manufacturers applying technologies such as 5G, blockchain, sensors/AI, cloud, etc. across the product lifecycle?

The concept of “smarter data” refers to the application of advanced technologies and data analytics to the pharmaceutical industry to optimize drug development, manufacturing, and distribution processes, leading to an improved patient experience. UPS’ portfolio of solutions drives value to our customers by protecting critical healthcare shipments, whether they’re going across the country or across the world.

We continue to focus on smart pharma to enhance the overall patient experience. RFID and 2D barcodes are two items added to each package and throughout facilities to create a smart pharma network that allows for end-to-end visibility along with easy adaption to technologies currently developed for use within our facilities and transportation network. Both sensor technologies allow for all data (SKU, lot/batch, serial number, expiration, etc.) to be captured with one scan or a single movement to accurately capture all movement data.

UPS has deployed smart package smart facility (SPSF) technology for preloading RFID tags and scanners to 100 US facilities, will deploy this technology to another 500-1,000 centers in 2023, and are installing this technology on package cars as part of the second wave of the SPSF initiative, in 2023.

As far as automation specifically, with the emergence of more complex injectable drugs, gene therapies, and medical device combinations, is pharma packaging automation evolving fast enough to meet the growing demand? How are manufacturers and their partners meeting the higher regulatory requirements for packaging development?

The pharmaceutical packaging industry is rapidly evolving in terms of automation to meet the growing demands for complex injectable drugs, gene therapies, and medical device combinations. Automation in pharmaceutical packaging can significantly reduce the risk of human error, improve production speed and efficiency, and increase product quality and consistency.

As demands grow for more complex packaging, manufacturers and their partners are responding to the higher regulatory requirements for packaging development by investing in advanced automated systems and processes that meet regulatory requirements, as well as R&D to create new packaging designs and materials that can better protect drugs and medical devices from damage and contamination.

The first step to successfully transport critical biologics is to implement a packaging solution built around each customer’s temperature requirements and shipping route, including distance and time parameters.

To what levels have your pharma customers and supply chain partners embraced the concept of smart data? How much are they incorporating it in their day-to-day activities?

Our healthcare customers rely on us to provide them with accurate, real-time, and smart data to help them make timely decisions to support their supply chain needs.

Proactivity is key to providing the best customer and client service. Having detailed information regarding the integrity of the shipment (temperature) before it arrives to the consignee allows our customers to be prepared if an issue arrives. Receiving smart data that notifies and provides information ahead of delivery (i.e., temperature data) solely benefits the customer, which lets them know if there is a disruption or issue with their shipment.

Predictive analytics on inventory, financials, and forecasting is an area we are reviewing to provide additional insight our customer’s need. Customers want to be fed information that makes sense and alerts them to what they need to do if there is a problem.

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