The pharmaceutical packaging sector is in relatively good health but, like anything else health-related, it is under mounting pressure to stick to the leanest of budgets. Louise Hunt reports on developments in a tough climate

They may have built great empires based on products we, apparently, cannot live without but even the mighty global drugs’ manufacturers have to operate within the frayed purse strings of the healthcare providers. In the UK, these strings are being pulled ever tighter as the National Health System slides towards privately funded hospital trusts. But this is not a national phenomenon.

The downturn in the global economy, coupled with ageing populations requiring higher levels of care and the introduction of increasingly sophisticated and costly new medical procedures, is putting pressure on health providers in all European countries. This is causing governments to attempt to severely limit drugs prices that will be reimbursed, inevitably causing ramifications for the pharmaceutical suppliers.

For pharmaceutical manufacturers to stay main players in a high risk, high gain global market the standard solution has been to join market forces. The period between 1995 to 2000 saw a spate of mergers and acquisitions, including the formation of GlaxoSmithKline out of GlaxoWellcome and SmithKlineBeecham and the engulfing of Proctor and Gamble by Bristol-Myers Squibb.

In a natural extension to this strategy, many of the packaging suppliers have followed suit in a bid to become a single supplier to a pharmaceutical company’s European or even global operations. Field Boxmore Healthcare Packaging emerged out of Field Group (Chesapeake) in April 2000 to become one of Europe’s largest suppliers of printed packaging components to the pharmaceutical sector, while Plysu was bought by South African Nampak in 1999.

Another response has been to divest and/or refocus on more fruitful markets. Rexam Closures and Containers, which produces pharmaceutical bottles, is one company that is in hot pursuit of additional markets – namely personal care and cosmetics – following a growing rise in the use of blister packs in Europe.

This transition in packaging formats is evidenced by the Pira International report The Future of Global Packaging Markets* which details areas of growth and decline in the pharmaceutical packaging sector.

According to the report, world demand for pharmaceutical packaging has been increasing by 4.2% a year and has reached a value of $13.7bn. The US, Japan, Germany, UK, France and Italy are the largest markets for pharmaceutical packaging and will remain so well into the future. Paper, board and plastics will account for 95% of worldwide pharmaceutical packaging consumption. Total growth to 2004 is expected to be 8.9%.

Blister packs are gaining in importance because of their improved barrier and aesthetic properties, as well as their ability to meet medical compliance, extended shelf life and the drug administration advantages.

However, they are not expected to supplant plastics bottles as the top selling medical packaging format in the developing world, owing to the cost disadvantages and processing complexities. World demand for pharmaceutical plastics bottles is expected to grow by 4.4% a year through to 2003.

Pharmaceutical pouches and strip packs will see above average gains in global demand, based on unit dose adaptability and product differentiation advantages. Blister packaging will provide the strongest growth prospects, owing to its adaptability to unit dose, compliance, high visibility and clinical medication formats. Growth here will be for over the counter drug applications, unit dose packs for ethical drugs and disposable contact lenses.

Where trends and developments in print packaging for pharmaceuticals and healthcare are concerned, Field Boxmore sales and marketing director Ian Anderson firmly believes that it is a question of “faster, smarter, better – but cheaper and available wherever”. This is what today’s European pharmaceutical industry is demanding of its packaging suppliers. With year on year double-digit profit growth no longer guaranteed, pharmaceutical companies are looking for cost savings throughout their supply chain.

In addition, the increasing need for differentiation, an ever more dem-anding regulatory environment and the inevitable globalisation of the market place are the forces driving the industry’s relationship with its packaging suppliers.

Practices such as Vendor Managed Inventory, Ship to Line, “Kitting” (where one supplier takes over responsibility for the supply of all components for a particular product), previously the preserve of the automotive industry, are now commonplace in pharmaceutical packaging.

Likewise, the use of electronic media to manage the interface between supplier and customer, be it communication of order require-ments and artwork, and the workflow itself is now a standard practice. Throughout the industry order quantities are reducing and lead times shortening which, in turn, is forcing packaging suppliers to investigate new printing technologies such as digital, although this is by no means the only solution and has yet to make significant inroads in pharmaceutical printing.

As the pharmaceutical industry consolidates so it looks for fewer and better suppliers, able to offer not only the full range of existing printed products – i.e. cartons, leaflets and labels – but also novel solutions such as booklets, leaflet-labels and leaflet-cartons.

These packaging practices cater for the ever-increasing demand for more information – a standardised package across Europe backed up by common quality and validation systems and standards of service.

As in so many other industries it seems that the days of the small national supplier may be numbered, although the critical nature of pharmaceutical packaging means that a close relationship between the individual supplier and user site remains as important as ever.

Another discernible trend is towards greater variety and complexity of print with more products moving to over the counter status and pharmaceutical companies increasingly appreciating the importance of packaging as a marketing medium.

This in turn could mean a greater involvement of sup-pliers in design and specification, as is already the case in several other sectors of the packaging industry.

Design capability will relate not only to print and image but also to functionality. On one hand, this includes techniques to prevent or detect counterfeiting and tampering, increasing concerns for the industry as new markets open up around the world.

And, on other hand, improvements to packing line efficiency, an area which is likely to attract considerably more attention in the future as cost pressures intensify.

Trying to predict long term trends in any industry is difficult but one thing seems likely and that is that the major threat to (and opportunity for) tomorrow’s packaging suppliers will come as much from shifts in the supply chain as from traditional like for like competitors.

Historically, the role of the print packaging industry has been to convert a pre-set design, with only minor modifications, to a printed carton, label or leaflet supplied to the customer’s packing line warehouse.

In future, the challenge may be to grasp the opportunity to provide the pharmaceutical company, now concentrating only on R&D and sales, with everything from initial pack design through to packed product supplied to the end market in just the one seamless computer controlled process. Most of this might just as easily take place on the customer’s premises as in the supplier’s stand-alone factory or – and herein lies the threat – be carried out by someone else in the supply chain such as the contract packer or healthcare services supplier.” The following pages of Packaging Today Inter- national’s pharmaceutical supplement explore the branding measures that have sprung from the growing movement towards over the counter pharmaceuticals, the anti-counterfeiting developments available to protect branding, and the packaging machines designed to comply with this industry’s high standards.