By Gareth Macdonald

COVID-19 prompted the drug industry to find new ways of making medicines with companies rejigging production operations and recalibrating materials sourcing. Digital technology played a significant role in helping developers link recalibrated supply chains with manufacturing on the factory floor, according to Raj Rajendran, an associate partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

“The biopharmaceutical manufacturing community has historically lagged behind other industries in terms of digital adoption, particularly in comparison with other advanced industries like the automotive sector,” he says. “However, the pandemic marked a watershed moment with several operations and supply chain disruptions that necessitated the adoption of digital. Hence, over the last 2–3 years we have seen a significant shift in the pace and scale of digital adoption across the industry.”

The adoption of digital bioprocessing technologies has also been helped by the increased availability of such systems, he points out, noting that this shift is “further fueled by the democratization of newer technologies with low technical burden and lower cost of adoption.”

Tech ecosystem

McKinsey partner, Andrea Gennari, adds that the technology sector also played in accelerating biopharma’s digitization.

“Building in house capabilities as well as leveraging a robust ecosystem of digital partners across different areas such as setting up cloud infrastructure, internet of things platforms, front-line digitalization, modeling software (including digital twins), workflow automation is key to the success of a digital transformation,” he explains.

“We see companies increasingly investing in digital talent as well as a large and vibrant set of ecosystem partners -including established software players, OEM and several specialized AI-focused start-ups—that are increasing focus on providing digital solutions across the entire biopharma value chain and lifecycle.”

But a successful transition to digital is about more than just technology. The companies that make the switch most successfully are those that do so for valid business reasons.

“Some companies tend to take a ‘technology-first’ view to digital transformations, which calls for significant investments upfront before meaningful returns,” says Rajendran. “What we often see as a more successful strategy is for companies to look at it through a business impact-lens to prioritize areas of focus and take a fit-for-purpose approach to investments in technology.

This approach enables a self-funding digital journey from the start and encourages a positive ROI in the near-to-medium term. “Several big pharma companies, mid-size generics and smaller biotech players have benefited from this approach,” he continues.

Forward

Looking forward, the biopharmaceutical industry’s use of digital bioprocessing technology is likely to increase as drug firms start to realize the benefits of such systems, according to another McKinsey partner, Vivek Arora.

“Our independent research, collaboration with World Economic Forum on the global lighthouse network, and extensive client work on this topic indicate that digital leaders in biopharma have achieved breakthrough performance improvements across safety, quality, productivity, agility and sustainability that are not feasible through traditional methods alone,” explains Arora. “Multiple digital technology platforms such as machine connectivity, digital twins, artificial intelligence, automation, augmented reality provide several opportunities for digital transformation.

“They also provide a basis for end-to-end connectivity across the biopharma value chain through seamless data sharing and insight generation.”

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