With a number of data-driven, AI-oriented and trending technologies already impacting the pharma industry, smart packaging is one of the latest developments to help optimise the supply chain. Offering benefits to manufacturers, suppliers and patients has huge potential to transform the way that drugs are transported and the information available throughout this process.

Ruud van der Geer, associate director of supply chain management EMEA, MSD, is passionate about packaging. Currently based in the Netherlands, he has been at MSD for 16 years, initially employed as a packaging engineer before working his way up to his current position. Particularly focused on Europe, the middle-east and Africa, his key interest is in the digitalisation of MSD’s logistics network, where smart packaging plays a key role.

The three key areas

For Van der Geer, smart packaging can be divided into three different areas. The first of these relates to the operating model used at MSD, which provides multiple benefits. “What you see a lot is single-use systems in the market; we are changing that to reuse, reverse logistics and pay-per-use models,” explains Van der Geer. “This is partly for sustainability; avoiding transport packaging ending up as landfill but also so that we can integrate technology into the system.”

Connectivity is another key aspect of smart packaging. “We are taking advantage of new insulated packaging materials that can reduce weight and increase quality,” says Van der Geer. “Everyone is using USB devices but with the new technologies entering the market, they allow us to be more proactively connected to GPS and cell networks.”

A less obvious element of smart packaging is the people involved. “We need to make sure that we have strategic partnerships and strong collaboration with our partners,” explains Van der Geer. Ensuring effective communication throughout the supply chain is integral to optimise the use of these emerging technologies as well as preventing problems from occurring.

The key to connectivity

MSD has worked on a several projects in this area, which have not always been straightforward. “UNICEF mentioned that there were difficulties reaching people in need after natural disasters and disease outbreaks, and asked us, as an industry, to help them,” explains Van der Geer. “The biggest challenges are connectivity and ensuring product integrity. We don’t know where our materials are and we lack temperature control. We cannot guarantee that a quality product is delivered because we are shipping in-the-blind most of the time.”

100 years
MSD has been active in the Netherlands for almost a century.

To address these difficulties, MSD turned to drones. “We created our own asset management platform, we created our own connected container and we executed a number of proof-of-concepts,” says Van der Geer. “We flew products to clinics, to an offshore island off the coast of Puerto Rico and recently we executed long-range, fully autonomous and beyond line of sight trials in the Bahamas, including -70°C dry-ice deliveries.”

The drones provided valuable insights about the drugs being shipped. “We could see the products in real time, where they were, what the conditions were, when it was delivered and when the container was opened,” explains Van der Geer. “You get a lot more visibility in your supply chain. It was a good test ground to try out smart packaging.”

The future is digital

Although such projects are hugely exciting, smart packaging is just one piece of the puzzle at MSD. “The longer-term strategy for us is not only using IOT-connected devices like drones,” says Van der Geer. “We use these as a stepping stone to the future where we are looking to digitise the whole supply chain.”

The vision, rather paradoxically, involves both scaling-up and drilling-down. “There are a lot of monitoring devices that you can buy off the shelf to track shipments but we want to be able to track each individual pallet, each individual parcel, each individual package and insure full product integrity at delivery,” explains Van der Geer.

This level of precision allows for problems to be addressed efficiently and effectively. “The whole driver for us is to make sure that we can actually release products on a partial level and distinguish between each individual parcel,” says Van der Geer. “If there is a temperature excursion, you may actually be able to save the majority of the shipment because it wasn’t impacted, whereas if you only track a full shipment, you can’t do this.” Despite the value of such data, accessing it is not easy. “The IoT devices that are available on the market today are mostly track-and-trace focused devices, controlling your shipment and supporting planning parameters,” explains Van der Geer. “Another category of devices out there are used to validate the quality of the products when it is received by a customer. Making a bridge between those two is difficult but not impossible.”

Achieving greater visibility of the supply chain is particularly important because of the shift in MSD’s portfolio. “There is a move towards more biologics, more life-saving drugs and high-value products in smaller volumes, which means we need to think differently in terms of how we protect shipments,” says Van der Geer.

Of equal importance

Being able to address problems that arise during shipment is important but Van der Geer emphasises that this is not the ultimate goal. “The data management itself makes shipment intervention possible; with IoT you have the ability to intervene before events occur, although I don’t think that is the right element to focus on,” says Van der Geer. “Actual shipment intervention is complicated and involves many direct communication lines and handovers. The ability to better understand the risks and capabilities, and be predictive and proactive are equally important.”

With this in mind, MSD is investing heavily into technologies and processes within the next few years. There are a number of different sources of information that MSD will draw upon in its efforts. “When we have our planning data, our transportation data and our temperature data, we can start bringing those together within the cloud environment,” says Van der Geer. “What’s next after that, is building predictive analytics, finding external data sets that we can use, as well as linking up with product serialisation data. We want to integrate all that information to get a large picture.”

 MSD in the Netherlands

  • MSD is one of the pharmaceutical companies that invested the most in R&D: for 2017 it was 25% of the turnover.
  • A number of important MSD medicines have been discovered and (partially) developed in the Netherlands, among these is immunotherapy for the treatment of cancer.
  • MSD Netherlands is a pioneer in biological R&D for animal health; for example, the development of vaccines against upcoming animal diseases such as bluetongue in cattle.
  • MSD Netherlands is the birthplace of many new developments in the area of fertility and contraception.
  • By producing over 100 different veterinary vaccines and medicines, MSD Netherlands contributes to the prevention and the health protection of animals. The worldwide supply is over 50 billion doses per year.
  • MSD invests in new production technologies such as Sphereon: a technology that freeze-dries live viral vaccines as easily soluble pellets.

Source: MSD