Navigating the Pharma Packaging Evolution
As political battles over health care, prescription drug prices and new federal regulations dominate headlines, printers responsible for producing pharmaceutical packaging need to remain nimble in order to satisfy the demands of an ever-changing marketplace.
According to 2016 research performed by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, the United States remains the largest market for pharmaceutical and medical devices. Globally, demand for medicine and medical devices is on the rise, PMMI research shows, causing packaging firms to take note of a number of emerging trends. This includes shifts in consumer demographics, regulatory and serialization issues, and advances in printing equipment technology.
“There is a trend towards shorter runs in the pharma industry,” states Jorge Izquierdo, VP, market development, PMMI. “In the past, [converters] were used to manufacturing very stable product lines. Now, there are more and more personalized treatments and combinations of different drugs within the same prescription. This causes the need for shorter runs of different labels and cartons.”
This is forcing pharmaceutical companies to change up their products and packaging more frequently, Izquierdo points out. An aging population with a longer life expectancy and a rise in chronic diseases also has an effect on the marketplace.
“We are seeing a significant uptick in requests for combination products — multiple items adhered together then sold as one unit,” notes Joe Elphick, president and CEO of 3C! Packaging in Clayton, N.C., in an email to packagePRINTING. “Examples include labels attached to pharma inserts, inserts attached to folding cartons, and inserts attached to inserts, which is known as piggybacking.”
3C! Packaging is an independent, privately owned packaging solutions company specializing in the design and manufacture of custom folding cartons, printed literature, inserts/outserts, labels/foils and unit dose applications.
Elphick points out that a challenge he is seeing from a graphics standpoint is tied to upcoming pharmaceutical packaging serialization compliance, which goes into effect in November.
“Sometimes the packaging graphics are the last thought when considering an over-arching serialization strategy — a multi-faceted infrastructure investment being implemented under a tight deadline, especially this coming November for the U.S.,” he writes. “Depending on the size of the label or folding carton, the serialization space needed can require major graphic changes.”
Lon Johnson, VP for pharmaceutical sales at Colbert Packaging in Lake Forest, Ill., states in an email that while he isn’t seeing a shift in complexity of pharmaceutical packaging structures, he has noticed an increased desire for flawless, high-quality packaging and product functionality.
“Our customers have raised the bar on all incoming packaging,” Johnson writes. “With serialization just around the corner, our customers have moved to much higher standards, since every aspect of their production is digitally scanned and recorded. Minuscule flaws are now highlighted and can cause false reads if they are near the serialized code area.”
Recently, 3C! Packaging introduced a new coating for coding applications. Clear Code implements a CO2 laser, which in conjunction with a clear coating, results in a color change reaction, leading to a positive contrast image. Elphick states that the intended result is enhanced clarity and contrast.
According to PMMI, pharmaceutical manufacturers face some very strict standards in package and label printing, along with changing requirements regarding curbing counterfeit activity and adding security features. According to the association, serialization and Unique Product Identification requirement regulations will have an effect throughout the supply chain.
“Some of the manufacturing that was previously done overseas is now coming back to the U.S. because it is easier to comply with legislation and regulations,” Izquierdo says. Johnson states that Checkpoint and Sensormatic remain the security standards in the over-the-counter (OTC) market.
“On the [prescription drug] side, we use quite a range of both overt and covert techniques to distinguish the authenticity of the products,” he writes. “The techniques and markers vary greatly from customer to customer, utilizing a spectrum of inks and print technologies.”
Colbert Packaging relies on both offset and flexographic printing to produce pharmaceutical jobs.
“What provides us with an edge is our utilization of in-line, full 100% electronic verification,” Johnson writes. “Going forward, this technology will become required to participate in any form of health care packaging.”
Johnson states that OTC packaging graphics have become more complex, using high-end substrates like metalized polyester.
“They have also incorporated foil stamping and holographic features,” he contends. “The generic market has remained the same, using simple, consistent graphics, generally two- or three-color.”
Elphick maintains that serialization will be the main change-driver for 2017. He predicts that some companies will struggle to meet the November deadline, and will search for solutions that not only meet minimum requirements, but will also address the strict future phase-ins.
“Our product, Clear Code, is designed to increase equipment speeds, and offer better contrast and print acuity,” he adds.
Folding cartons at 3C! Packaging are produced using a MarquipWardUnited sheeter, KBA offset presses, Iberica blankers and Bobst folder/gluers. Pharmaceutical inserts are handled by a mix of Didde and Heidelberg presses, and finished on Vijuk folders and Longford insertion machines. Finally, labels are run on Nilpeter flexo presses with CEI roll examiners/slitters.
Last year, 3C! Packaging enjoyed an increase in business that allowed the company to add more than 3,000 sq. ft. to its facility and to hire several new front-end employees, Elphick writes.
To accommodate the growth of its label operation, the company installed a new Nilpeter FB-3 flexo press, which is able to efficiently produce short-run jobs. This is an important advantage, Elphick says, since he predicts the trend toward short, tailored production runs is here to stay.
PMMI’s Izquierdo notes that many companies are predicting a need to spend more on capital equipment in the next two years. Much of this is driven by a move toward more flexible production options to handle shorter-run jobs.
“We are seeing an increased demand for robotics and automation,” he says. “Robotics now are more affordable and it is easier to program and maintain them. Robotics make things more flexible and they easily change from one function to another.”
Additionally, Izquierdo points out that the pharmaceutical industry has traditionally been a heavy user of rigid plastic containers. However, he is expecting to see future growth centered on blister packaging.
“Maybe not explosive growth, but consistent growth in the coming years,” he says.
Elphick, of 3C! Packaging, concludes that the demand for cost reductions, smaller order quantities and faster turnarounds are not going away.
“In short, packaging manufacturers need to be more nimble than ever while implementing measures that save [their] customers money,” he writes. “What is becoming a new norm is customized, short runs delivered in tight timeframes. There’s a just-in-time aspect to packaging manufacturing that has continued to sculpt the landscape.”