Smart package – pharmaceutical innovations

25 May 2016

With lowered costs and tighter budgets, the pharmaceutical industry’s pressures are plentiful. Guido Schmitz, head of packaging and technology innovation at Bayer HealthCare’s consumer-care division, discusses the value of creative thinking during these trying times.

Healthcare packaging has numerous challenges to surmount, such as designing packages that ensure patient safety, meet regulatory requirements, tap into market needs and engender loyalty to brands. It has never been a straightforward process, but the difficulties have intensified.

With problems such as counterfeiting, healthcare packaging designers have become smarter and more prudent by incorporating barcodes, which amount to a track-and-trace system for security throughout the supply chain.

Market demand is also changing, favouring child-resistant and senior-friendly solutions, and reduced waste. The global pharmaceutical packaging market is fast becoming a critical point of differentiation between brands. "It is a much larger part of the puzzle than it was in the past," says Guido Schmitz, head of packaging and technology innovation at Bayer HealthCare's consumer-care division. "More people in the industry are trying to use packaging to differentiate their products. In an organisation like ours, it plays a pivotal role."

Healthcare companies may still face a dilemma: should they focus resources on newer and smarter packages, or should they bring their product to the market? With tight budgets, pouring funds into packaging may not seem like the obvious choice. It incurs design, testing and approval costs, but it may also slow down development. It may appear simpler to stick with familiar packaging that regulators already recognise.

Underlying this is a complex tangle of factors: increased quantities of data have slowed down the registration process and caused development costs to soar; regulation, while heavily controlled by authorities, can vary from market to market; and fuel costs add to the challenge.

Viable solutions

What can healthcare packaging companies do to redress the situation? They could respond by hiking up the cost of their products, but that is hardly a viable business model. Also, it's not possible to cut corners by skimping on safety tests.

They have to make sacrifices elsewhere; packaging innovation is often one of the first victims. This is a quandary with which Schmitz is well acquainted.

He is an expert in granulation, roller compaction, packaging, and tablet compacting and coating, with more than 25 years of experience working in packaging technology processes. Schmitz makes recommendations that often earn support and funding. He says: "Any new innovation creates a challenge in terms of potentially increased costs and less efficiency. I need a good reason to do something different."

Avoiding innovation, however, is not the approach of Bayer HealthCare's consumer-care division. Having trademarked Aspirin at the end of the 19th century, the company has long sought novel technologies to suit users' needs. It recognises how crucial packaging can be in a crowded market.

In 2010, the company launched a pioneering packaging system for Bayer Aspirin and Aleve. With a new oval-shaped bottle and user-friendly cap, this was its first product in the category that was not in a carton. By eliminating the carton, the bottle reduced waste, heightened sustainability and allowed retailers to save on shelf space. Modifying the closure mechanism made it more child-resistant. The package is also tailored towards the needs of an ageing population. The cap is coated in a soft-touch, thermoplastic elastomer, which makes it simpler to remove. The raised logo on the sides gives it a comfortable grip, which is fitting as the typical user of Aleve is likely to be suffering from arthritis or a related condition; it is imperative that they can access their medication with ease.

"We are seeing trends towards easy-to-use, easy-to-open packaging," Schmitz says. "These trends are not new, but they're more powerful because the consumer is becoming more interested in innovative and different solutions."

Developments in smart packaging can capture data, monitor a patient's product use and direct patients to take their medication. The ideal smart package would be a ready-to-use dispensing system, which contained doses for a treatment cycle, displayed educational information and facilitated compliance, through the use of an audio alarm, for example, to remind the patient to take their medication, and a sensor to detect when the bottle had been opened. This information would be sent to the healthcare provider via SMS. With such technologies likely to become prevalent, healthcare companies cannot countenance being left behind. Companies' wisest cost-cutting measures may be to re-evaluate their own manufacturing processes.

"You have to examine the electronic communication technologies," says Schmitz. "There are solutions that make our lines flexible, reduce changeover time and enable us to get more efficient output." Bayer compresses tablets, for instance, which reduces production time, increases output and decreases noise levels. "We are also launching new cartoner technology, which will allow us to run multiple product queues on the same machine. During my 20 years in the field, our product supply and engineering have adapted to optimise packaging processes and improve overall line efficiency."

Bayer's strategy relies on platform development. This allows any new system to be used across multiple solutions, which keeps costs to a minimum. The latest Aspirin bottles took two years to develop. The bottles are based on a platform that can be adapted for other Bayer products and thus have far-ranging implications for the future. Packaging was widely viewed as separate from drug development, but these days they are mutually considered, which helps companies reduce costs and make superior design decisions.

Schmitz says: "Packaging has to be involved from the start of the project.It exerts a huge influence on the future." Schmitz is interested in expanding the company's consumer base: "I get my costs back over volume, not over cheaper materials, so it's important to have something special and different."

Over-the-counter packaging needs to create an emotional affinity with consumers, says Schmitz. Drugs aren't just therapeutic products, they're also brands. Loyalty to brands can make or break a potential customer base. A product should take advantage of its package space to communicate its brand message, going beyond the functional.

"I have to tell a story to the consumer, so we are pushing a holistic approach," says Schmitz. "I cannot see only structural design or branding or product; I have to bring everything together to make a difference to the consumer if they are to understand what the product stands for, and why they should buy this brand over the competition."

Packaging is integral to the healthcare industry. Neglect packaging and you neglect potential revenue. From Schmitz's point of view, packaging is far from being an extraneous concern. There are real financial benefits to be garnered.

Bayer HealthCare implements technology that can be used for multiple products.

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