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‘Pop-Up’ Factory: The Miniaturization of Medicine Manufacturing

As science speeds up, new approaches to manufacturing aim to get medicines to patients faster.

From restauranteurs to retailers, businesses of all kinds are embracing the power of the “pop-up.” But for the makers of medicines, the potential for flexible, quick-setup facilities isn’t about testing a new idea or generating marketing buzz, it’s about keeping pace with the speed of scientific innovation.

The traditional approach to medicine manufacturing was developed in an era before gene sequencing and big data. In brick-and-mortar facilities, manufacturers typically produced medicines through a “batch” process defined by stops and starts, and limited by geography. But as breakthroughs in life sciences and technology move medicine out of a one-size-fits-all mindset, manufacturing is increasingly taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies to help meet the demand for smaller batches of medicines through POD – or modular – manufacturing.

“The scientific and business environments are changing rapidly and we need to be responsive to changes in demand, especially with some emerging treatments – in rare diseases and cancer, for example,” said Alton Johnson, vice president of Global Technology Services at Pfizer. “We need to be able to shorten lead time and reduce response time, to be able to get products to patients faster.”

Faster and Smaller

As opposed to capital-intensive, fixed-location manufacturing facilities, the portable, continuous, miniature and modular (PCMM) units, or PODs, can be deployed anywhere in the world and quickly assembled to meet local needs and leverage local skills. While a standard manufacturing facility takes about two to three years to set up and start running, PODs can be implemented in less than a year. And they require a physical footprint 60 to 70% smaller than a traditional facility.

What’s more, given the capability for continuous production, real-time remote monitoring and other advanced manufacturing innovations encased within each unit, PODs can cut the manufacturing time of a tablet from days or weeks to minutes.

“If we have an early signal that a new cancer medicine may be effective, for example, and can move a product through clinical trials more quickly, then we need the infrastructure and quality systems to be able to manufacture more quickly as well,” said Johnson. 

Supporting Personalized Manufacturing

As the trend toward personalized medicine continues to grow, Johnson said, POD manufacturing could evolve to support entirely new paradigms in the delivery and distribution of medicines.

“When we get to individualized therapies, I think we’re going to need an even smaller and even more flexible footprint. There are a number of concepts under development where you could place PODS locally in hospitals or pharmacies – or even where the final prep is right there with the patient,” he said. “It’s really bringing the production much closer to the patient.”