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Pharmaceutical Packaging: Opportunities and Possibilities
Maulik V Dave, Chairman & MD, Harikrushna Machinetech P Ltd Pharmaceutical packaging has been undergoing radical changes in the past decade to keep itself updated with newer innovative technologies and to provide economical packaging solutions. The author provides an overall insight about the recent trends, technologies and solutions in pharmaceutical packaging industry.

Pharmaceutical packaging is experiencing a major shift. At the centre of this shift is an increasing need to create packaging that will resonate with the new empowered patient.

Pharmaceutical companies with their packaging counterparts must know and understand their patients, not just in medical terms but also as empowered consumers. This requires user friendly packaging insight, very much characterised by innovation and economical packaging solutions.

This is leading to radical changes in the previously undifferentiated world of pharmaceutical packaging, as it becomes one of the most important tools in the industry’s armory. It has moved from being a means to communicate mandatory regulatory product information to becoming part of the conversation that will help forge a deeper relationship with patients and as a means to respond both strategically and tactically to pharmaceutical industry issues.

Packaging certainly has an increasingly significant impact on prescription-only medicines as well. Packaging can make a huge difference here. For instance, the relationship between the medicine and patient is sometimes characterised by associations with illness rather than wellness. So, the medication packaging that contains the product can become a symbol of the condition rather than something associated with recovery. Also, the challenge of having to take medicines regularly for an extensive period of time can ultimately cause patients to lapse.

Packaging can address this issue, both by redefining the emotional connection between patient and product and also by helping in more tangible ways.

With counterfeiting accounting for annual losses estimated at USD 75 billion, packaging has also been at the heart of the industry’s strategy to protect itself. It has employed an array of security techniques to combat this issue, with varying success, including micro text, debossing and embossing, customised varnishes, holographic materials, tamper-evident stickers, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) track-and-trace tagging and customised graphics and fonts.

A new system has been developed that has uniquely coded packs with 'scratch and reveal' serial numbers that can be checked by the end user, either at the chemist or via the internet, to help ensure the provenance and legitimacy of medicines. These are not only important for the industry, but also help boost consumers' confidence in the medicines they are taking.

Pharmaceutical packaging is evolving rapidly. Increasingly sophisticated technologies and strategies are being employed. The competition for use of the valuable on-pack space is stronger than ever. Much of this is driven by the regulatory authorities; increased point size for text to improve readability, multi-market, centrally-registered products containing multiple languages and Braille requirements are all making it even more difficult, in terms of the on-pack space available, to be able to meet the challenges required and opportunities raised.

The pharmaceutical packaging market is constantly advancing and has experienced annual growth of at least 5 per cent per annum in the past few years. The market is now reckoned to be worth over USD 20 billion a year.

As with most other packaged goods, pharmaceuticals need reliable and speedy packaging solutions that deliver a combination of product protection, quality, tamper evidence, patient comfort and security needs. Constant innovations in the pharmaceuticals themselves (such as prefilled syringes, blow fill seal vials, powder applications and others) also have a direct impact on the packaging.

Traditionally, the majority of medicines (51 per cent) have been taken orally by tablets/capsules or liquid, which are either packed in blister packs or fed into plastic pharmaceutical bottles. However, other methods for taking medicines are now becoming more widely used. These include parenteral or intravenous (29 per cent), inhalation (17 per cent), and transversal (3 per cent) methods.

Advances in the packaging machines themselves has seen the incorporation of precise 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.

A solution to achieve hermetically sealed packs for blister, blow-fill-seal pouches, vials and other products is to overwrap them into a horizontal flow wrap. These flow wraps consist of a foil laminate that is able to increase the shelf life of the product as well as to ensure 100 per cent tightness.

Some packaging needs are not driven by the need for hygiene, safety or traceability. The increased focus on marketing of pharmaceutical products will become even more important in the future and will drive factors such as the need for flexibility in terms of various pack types and sizes.

Other needs are simply driven by costs as pharmaceutical 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 and protection from interference. It is a challenge to cover all aspects at once.

The ongoing globalisation trend with extended competitive landscape in the pharmaceutical industry will lead to smaller batch sizes. If existing packaging equipment is used, this will have a negative effect on productivity, as older machines are often not designed for quick changeovers and flexibility. New packaging lines will have to offer high flexibility while maintaining production levels. Availability is an absolute must in the pharmaceutical industry, which necessitates the highest possible packaging speeds combined with minimal waste and high flexibility.

High-speed lines can produce the requested small batch sizes within a few hours but then resetting formats needs additional hours, which has a negative impact on the overall efficiency of the packaging line. Format changes and line clearance should be able to be performed within a few minutes. To cope with this, the whole packaging process, which includes all modules and machines used in the entire system, must be completely harmonised. It is of no use if the majority of machines can be changed to handle a new batch within 15 minutes but it then takes more than two hours to do the line clearance because some areas suffer from poor accessibility.

To meet validation requirements, pharmaceutical companies increasingly demand that machinery is modularised and standardised. This includes a standardised operating interface and control systems (HMI) for all components. Such systems also have monitoring systems for maximum production safety.

With standardisation and modularity, profitability can also be increased, as the lines allow rapid changeover to cater for different dosages of the same medicine in different pack types. The increased profitability is additionally supported by lower maintenance cost.

It is not only the technology and its standardisation that is sufficient to produce high efficiencies. The entire packaging process needs to be harmonised and there is a huge optimisation potential in this area. Within the pharmaceutical production and packaging process, there are many operations and interfaces between process steps that are still performed manually.

In the future, many of these tasks will be taken over by flexible robotics technology. For example, the entire feeding process of products coming from batch production and fed to the packaging line is, in most cases, still a manual process which, in many cases, will be automated within the next few years.

For companies involved in pharmaceutical packaging, these are exciting times. The ever-changing pharma landscape and the range of technologies and approaches being developed to maximise the impact of packaging mean that the functional, humble standard pill box/bottles/vials has been succeeded by a new breed of packaging components like pre fill syringes, instant drug patches that will help define the future of the sector.