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Manufacture Technology and Equipment, Small Molecules

Realizing 3D Potential by Printing a Clearer Picture

Inkjet printing has the potential to transform the ways in which pharmaceuticals are developed, manufactured and delivered to the patient. A great deal of research has been published on the subject, but the sheer volume and variety of it – and the fact that its focus tends to be narrow – often on just one type of application and a limited range of pharmaceuticals – makes it difficult for companies to get a clear picture of what inkjet technologies can offer.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) in the UK have developed a systematic approach to understanding how inkjet printing can deliver clear benefits for pharmaceutical companies. In a collaborative effort published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics in October 2015 (1), two teams focused on different areas have analyzed the reams of research published to date and developed a coherent approach to comparing its findings. The process plays to each team’s strengths: IfM’s Inkjet Research Centre, led by Professor Ian Hutchings and Dr. Graham Martin, understands the underlying science and technology, whereas researchers from the Centre for International Manufacturing focus on the pharmaceutical sector’s particular supply chain challenges and opportunities.

And both challenges and opportunities are in plentiful supply. The pharmaceutical industry is struggling with long, slow and expensive supply chains and high levels of inventory; the value of stock levels is estimated to be about $100-150 billion for the top 25 pharma companies and replenishment lead times are often in excess of 200 days. Companies are responding by trying to move away from the “blockbuster” business model while looking to develop more personalized healthcare, minimize expensive research costs and high-risk scale-up, and trying new ways of manufacturing to deliver value to the patient and sector. This may involve a shift away from traditional batch approaches towards continuous or hybrid models.

Inkjet printing could play a key role, but only if there is a clearer understanding of how and where it can be used. Our review identified and detailed six points in which it can have a significant impact on pharmaceutical manufacturing: high throughput, cost-effective “system discovery” techniques; design for manufacture; primary and secondary process manufacturing; packaging; and end-user drug delivery. We also identified and explored the four key stages where things can go wrong: making the fluid, its transit through the delivery system and then its exit from the nozzle, and finally when it dries and delivers its active properties. All of these areas need researching individually, but they also need to be understood and addressed collectively if manufacturers are to successfully integrate inkjet printing techniques into their businesses.

If a manufacturer is persuaded that inkjet printing is the way forward, some product lines may be more suitable for the inkjet treatment than others. But how do they know which ones? Again, existing research is unsuitable because it tends to focus on individual product lines and a single inkjet printer technology – therefore, it is difficult to present generalizable conclusions. By categorizing products based on their product-process characteristics and their active-ingredient chemistry, it should be possible to develop and test model systems and thereby reduce the risk of expensive and time-consuming failures. We believe that the findings of our review are a first step in this direction and will finally enable the pharmaceutical industry to realize the full potential of inkjet printing on a commercial scale.

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  1. R. Daly et al., “Inkjet Printing for Pharmaceutics – A Review of Research and Manufacturing,” International Journal of Pharmaceutics 494(2), 554-567 (2015).
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