Without an efficient and effective supply chain, drug manufacturers couldn’t do what they do. Moving drugs from production through delivery to customers is critical to the commercialization of their pharmaceutical products.

As part of our new blog series, Ask a Supply Chain Expert, we spoke with J.L. Thompson, drug packaging project manager for McKesson, about manufacturers’ supply chain challenges. We also asked him about the role that drug packaging can play to help your manufacturing company overcome those challenges.

What are you responsible for in your role at McKesson?

Thompson: I’m a project manager in a drug packaging facility. I translate a customer’s conceptual drug packaging idea into actual drug packaging ready for market. Sometimes manufacturers already have an idea of what they want. In those instances, we just execute it. Other times, they need ideas. In those cases, we come up with ideas, develop them and see them through distribution in the market.

What common drug packaging challenges do manufacturers need solutions for?

Smart Ways to Boost Supply Chain Efficiency for Drug ManufacturersThompson: It depends on the medication. Each drug has specific storage, storage condition, shipping, product handling, dosage and accessibility requirements. Each drug also must follow safety rules from the FDA. The range of packaging options available to manufacturers is as wide as the drugs themselves. It’s our job to match our packaging to the specific needs of an individual drug.

What are some common supply chain challenges for drug manufacturers?

Thompson: There are three that I hear consistently from drug manufacturers. The first is FDA approval of their new drugs. It takes a long time, and approval dates often are unknown. The second is a shortage of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). Sometimes it’s hard for drug manufacturers to get the raw components to make their medications. The third is competition. They’re concerned that other companies will beat them to the market with a new drug. They’re also concerned that other manufacturers will offer similar drugs that will eat into their market share.

How does the supply chain affect those three issues?

Thompson: It’s all about speed. You can’t package your new drug until the FDA approves it. But once you get approval, you need to choose the right packaging for your drug, package it and get it to market as quickly as possible. Your supply chain also affects your access to APIs. You should have a reliable flow of APIs to make your product. And when there is a shortage, your supply chain must be nimble enough to obtain APIs from alternative sources. As for competition, it’s all about getting the right drug to the right customer at the right time. You need effective supply chain management to do that.

How does drug packaging affect supply chain performance?

Thompson: It plays a vital role from start to finish. On the front end, after the FDA approves the drug, quickly matching packaging to the needs of a drug is critical. You need the right packaging to ship, track and store drugs efficiently and safely. On the back end, packaging can affect sales and adherence. If the packaging is not appealing or is hard to open, patients may be less likely to buy the drug or use it properly.

How does that affect drug manufacturers from a business standpoint?

Thompson: Innovative packaging designs and user-friendly packaging are going to help patients see and use your drugs. That will help your business grow. If your drug is hard to see or hard to use, patients are going to use your drug less. You should also know about compliance packaging. Compliance packaging means you put a supply of drugs for a course of treatment in one pack. You do that before you deliver the drugs to your pharmacy customers. The pharmacist doesn’t spend time counting out pills. Instead, he or she can spend more time talking to patients about their health needs. Pharmacists are your eyes and ears in the market for your drugs. They’ll have more time to report what they see and what they hear back to manufacturers. You can use that information to improve your products. It all starts with effective drug packaging and supply chain management.

What supply chain trends should drug manufacturers watch and stay on top of?

Thompson: There are new types of medications entering the market all the time. Some are new gene therapies. Others are new immunotherapy drugs. Others are novel or other types of orphan drugs. Your usual packaging, supply chain and distribution processes may not work. Your company will need to work with your distributors to find packaging, supply chain and distribution solutions that match the unique needs of each drug.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, how will the drug supply chain be different five years from now?

Thompson: I think you’re going to see more automation and more analytics. Manual processes will be outdated. Five years from now, every step in the supply chain will connect to everything else through analytics. Manufacturers will be able to watch everything and find opportunities to become more efficient and effective. They’ll be able to overcome many of the common supply chain challenges I mentioned earlier.

What do you enjoy most about working with drug manufacturers?

Thompson: What I enjoy most is coming up with a packaging solution that they’ve never heard of. They come in with some thoughts about what packaging they think they need. There’s not one approach that works best for everything. Then we come up with a solution that speeds up the supply chain, saves them money and, most importantly, is good for patient care. That’s what I get most excited about.

Editor’s note: Have a question for one of our supply chain experts? Please leave a comment and let us know. We'll be sure to cover it in a future edition of Ask a Supply Chain Expert.

Related: Learn more about McKesson’s RxPak pharmaceutical packaging solutions for drug manufacturers

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McKesson editorial staff is committed to sharing innovative approaches and insights so our customers can get the most out of their business solutions and identify areas for operational improvement and revenue growth.