Postponement packaging: getting drugs to patients faster

Taking a leaf out of the food industry’s book, late-stage-customisation could help to pave the way towards personalised medicines and enable drug manufacturers and contract packing organisations to offer patient-specific packaging

Postponement packaging, or late-stage-customisation, is the supply chain practice of keeping a product in a standard format for as long as possible, only making it market specific — or even customer specific — at the moment demand arises. It has the potential to allow drug firms to react more efficiently and effectively to variable market demand than traditional supply models; but, according to Tjoapack’s Dexter Tjoa, careful planning is required to ensure successful adoption.

Potential benefits of postponement packaging

Postponement packaging is an adaptation of the various lean manufacturing concepts that have arisen during recent years, primarily from the automotive industry. It provides an effective way of managing the differences between the “process manufacturing” approach of pharma’s bulk production world and that of packaging and distribution suppliers.

Advocates argue that postponement has advantages compared with traditional models wherein products are assembled much earlier in the supply chain. For example, products are less likely to have to undergo repackaging work to make them suitable for an alternative market. Currently, responding to a tender demand in market A might require repackaging a finished product that’s already assembled for market B, which would incur additional cost, add lead time and generate waste.

The fact that the product remains sector agnostic allows manufacturers to quickly respond to fluctuations in market demand or regulatory changes that would ordinarily require modification or disassembly and reassembly of the product. By removing the need for repackaging work, time to market can be significantly reduced, which ultimately means that medicines can reach the patient much faster.

It is also useful for streamlining supply in markets, such as Europe, where there are huge variations in requirements from country to country, ranging from language differences to artwork requirements. Using postponement packaging, it is possible to prepare packs to a semi-finished point and only make them country specific when demand arises.

Industry uptake

Current adoption of postponement packaging within the industry is limited. Implementing this approach requires a change in mindset across the supply chain. Companies are beginning to explore postponement packaging in a bid to streamline operations and improve efficiencies, which can ultimately save time and money. Supply chain partners are considering the potential benefits compared with their impact on quality assurance (QA). In particular, more packagers are starting to recognise the benefits it could offer for small-volume products and for supplying markets with unpredictable demand levels. Those who invest the time and money into postponement packaging now could gain a significant advantage compared with their competitors in terms of drastically reducing lead times for their customers.

Postponing the future

During the last few years, the drug pipeline has started to change, with more and more complex molecules entering the supply chain. A lot of these new drugs are targeted at more specific disease variants and small patient populations, meaning demand for them is often more sporadic and, when it does arise, it’s for much lower volumes than other drugs.

As the industry continues to move forward, it’s easy to see how useful postponement packaging could become in supplying these new medicines to market while mitigating the need to store market-specific stock that might never be needed. The immediate impact of implementing postponement will grant drug companies shorter lead times and drastically increased flexibility, making it much easier to handle volatile demand, avoid drug shortages and combat mounting cost pressures.

In the much longer-term, postponement could help to prepare the industry for personalised medicines and enable drug manufacturers and contract packing organisations to offer patient-specific packaging on a case-by-case basis. Similar to the way the food industry delivers orders directly to the customer, the pharmaceutical industry could eventually deliver medicines direct from the warehouse to the patient.

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