Warehouse Management Technology in Pharma

By Surendra Deodhar, Head - Supply Chain Management, Reliance Life Sciences

The moment we refer to Warehouse Management Technology, our imagination gets filled with images of pallets moving on conveyors, robots moving racks all over, pickers wearing Google Goggles and so on. Nothing wrong in it. But the real life IT Applications in warehouse go far deeper and far beyond all that meets the eye.

All this requires investment…. a lot of investment. Every business – even those with very strong balance sheet – has a limited capital. And all aim for a good return on investment. And hence, it is imperative to choose what is essential and prioritize. That takes us to the core question of why do we need technology in warehouse? Trust me – the reasons can be as diverse as – productivity, quality to, creating hi-tech image or even satisfying someone’s ego!

As such, each industry and each organization has its’ own flavour and choice of technology.

In Pharma, the dominating feature is regulations. Practically every material, person, process, action, system is required to operate as per some or the other regulation. Hence, it is not enough to do right things and do them rightly, but is also essential to demonstrate that we have been doing the right things and also demonstrate that the people, processes and systems are capable of operating consistently as designed. That sets the stage for Warehouse Management Technology in Pharma.

Over the last few years, a number of factors such as, increasingly demanding expectations from the regulators, pricing pressure, increasing cost of new molecules, increasing biologicals, cold chain management, are pushing Pharma to enhance quality and productivity to new levels. Recent cases of data falsification and disqualification of several organizations, have further induced a sense of urgency. Hence, Pharma is going all out for deployment of IT. Pharma has been a laggard in deployment of IT for many years. But it has now woken up to the wonderful power of IT and is fast catching up.

Let us look at some areas of Warehouse Management, which are not so obvious for use of IT.

In Pharma, each consignment is accepted only after a thorough receipt check.

Take a simple example of checking the weight of an incoming consignment. The need is to have a weighing scale that is calibrated, checked on the day of us, the operator has this activity listed in his job description, and he is trained and present at that place at that time. The weight observed on weighing scale is required to be recorded accurately. In a non IT environment, each of this aspect is controlled and documented thru several processes; every activity that is ‘done by’ someone, is also required to be ‘checked by’ someone else. Log books are required to be maintained to record evidence of every step. Some Quality Assurance person is required to ‘review’ all such logs periodically.

Such elaborate manual processes to control even a minor, mundane activity, puts a lot of stress in operations. And, invariably, despite all this, one finds missing records, errors, simply due to human based systems. Instead, an IT system wherein relevant receipt checklist is available on a tab or a mobile device, only a trained, authorized person is allowed to log in, weighing scale operates only if calibrated, recording of weight is done thru a connected cable; offers a great alternative.

Another example. Imagine a person at warehouse reading a label on a box to establish if consignment is received from approved plant of an approved manufacturer. He is expected to match the address word by word. In a non IT based environment, he would carry some reference paper. A typical Pharma manufacturer would have hundreds of approved manufacturers and plants. That means, several hundred papers would have to be maintained. It will also require a separate process to make sure that the contents are right and all are of current version. But in an IT enabled system, all one needs is a tab or a mobile device which will display the address to be verified and a person who logs on to the device. Rest all happens in the background.

Let us look at one more example. All Pharma packages traditionally carry yellow labels indicating quarantine status and an additional green label pasted later to indicate approved status. But in a bar code based IT environment, it is possible to have just one label on arrival and store it in common area. Status of material changes in the background and the barcode acts as a pointer to that. This helps avoid additional labeling and shifting of thousands of packages.

All these are ‘not-so-glamorous’ applications. It is not to say that one should not invest in automatic conveyors and robots, but it simply helps to prioritize.

A reference to IT in Pharma is incomplete without mentioning a typical requirement and a major challenge – validation. It is necessary to ensure that the system is capable of performing ‘only’ what it is expected to do and no deviation is possible even as error. A number of service providers falter in this aspect. Accessibility on the go, thereby demanding could-based application, makes it even more challenging.

Must say that the technology for warehouse management is available in abundance. But smart deployment in an economical and secured manner is the key to success.

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