Continuous manufacturing and 3D printing will be the biggest pharma trends soon

The leading manufacturer and supplier of tablet making machines, SB Panchal & Company provides process equipment solutions to the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries in India. Established in the year 1947, the company is recognised for its technology offerings for the processes of coating, granulation, pelletisation and drying. In an interview to Cosmedic India, Hiren Panchal, Head – Process & Automation Group, SB Panchal & Company offers perspectives on the dynamic pharmaceutical sector and the country’s business outlook for the short and medium term. Excerpts of the interview:

What do you see as the broad trends in the Indian pharmaceutical market today?

From the overall, macro-economic perspective, I expect many new players to enter the Indian market, trying to make a mark with their differentiated products and service-lines in the coming years. One prominent area in this respect will be contract research. Many contract research organisations (CROs) can be seen opening their shops here. Their business focus and models differ from company to company. Some are in formulations while some others in drug trials. These segments are expected grow at a high rate.

Two factors can explain this phenomenon better. Firstly, a lot of original research has already taken place in the pharmaceutical sector worldwide. Most of the molecule discoveries (if not all) have already occurred. There aren not too many blockbuster molecules left to be discovered—or at least, they are less likely to be discovered very frequently any further. Secondly, India has traditionally been a dominant player in the generic drugs business. So, since humans have identified most of the diseases and the molecules that impact those symptoms, what remains now is how you differentiate the product. As a result, the next areas of research will be intermediaries, excipients, and drug delivery techniques and technologies.

What is the best method wherein a patient’s body can absorb a drug at a higher rate or can have a faster and deeper impact? The new researchers will also look at convenience. On the technology front, there will be innovation in the 3D printing area with respect to pharma. This is at a vey nascent stage and may take a decade to materialise. However, baby steps are being taken at research institute-levels where R&D is happening, and at the industry-level where companies are partnering and collaborating with these institutes to make the right kind of technologies, such as, 3D printers. The baby steps have already been taken and they have gone ahead. We need to wait and watch by when the technology matures and for its commercial success. 

There had been a series of developments, such as GST and the recent development of GSP, that are said to have affected the business sentiment in India. What have been your observations? What according to you is India’s short-term and mid-term business outlook, especially from the pharmaceutical sector’s perspective today? 

I have not seen any slack in business due to GST, GSP, or any other external factors. There are have been times where some decisions had been postponed by customers with regards to business investments and expansion. Pharmaceutical is a unique sector where regardless whether economy is good or bad, there always are sales. If the economy is doing well, then people would need medication for diabetes and if it doing badly, people would need treatment for heart disease or depression. In any case, there will always be a need for people to buy medicines to avoid or manage illness. As the country’s population continues to rise and our lifestyles continue to undergo changes, there will always be an increasing need for pharmaceuticals. 

Do you see any product innovations happening? 

The pharma industry is predominantly driven by batch processing. Although batch processing gives you high productivity, it also has its limitations such as maintaining a batch-to-batch consistency. In a batch process, there is always a certain loss of quality due to intermittent handling of products at every stage. You can never envisage what the impact will be at the next stage. Therefore, we are trying to enter machinery and equipment that help you with continuous manufacturing.

What is continuous manufacturing and what are its benefits?

When you are manufacturing something in a continuous fashion, unlike batch processing, there is no intermediate handling of the products being manufactured. This way, you are guaranteed of the quality of the final output—as long as your input remains the same. The same material, the same conditions and the same process ensures you get the same output.

A continuous process requires smaller space and still it gives you adequate output-quantity due to nonstop processing. For example, in case pharmaceutical tablet manufacturing, you may only about 1 kg per tablets per minute, but due to continuous processing, it means you get 60 kg output in one hour, which, typically is the installed capacity of a small pharmaceutical company. If someone is setting up a new plant today, (s)he would ideally look at that size. It still caters to a substantial output in terms of the number of tablets produced.

Our technology should help pharmaceutical companies handle almost all the possible molecules that they want to get into. A continuous process requires a particular setup as constant with certain predefined chemicals to be used throughout the process. That gives you a consistent quality for the drug you intend to manufacture. Standardization of material and process is the key here to ensure consistency. The pharmaceutical companies in the whole world—not only in India—have continuous manufacturing on their wish lists.

Another technology that we are looking at is 3D printing. With 3D printing, you can print just a few tablets or undertake manufacturing on a larger scale with the help of robotic printers. The use of robots ensure there is a greater control of the environment and avoidance of gross contamination due to zero human interference. These innovations may sound futuristic, but are bound to happen very soon. We ourselves are working on it. We are dealing with equipment that can be considered as precursor to 3D printers.