Using the assembly line technique to mass produce medicines

Henry Ford’s ideas of assembly line production could significantly improve the speed and cost of making medications.

Medicines are one of the few products that are still made stage by stage in a “batch-wise” fashion.

The idea of producing medicines in continuous output, instead of in individual batches, was brought up at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Bret E. Huff, Ph.D., Vice President, Chemical PR&D of Eli Lilly, said that the difference between batch and continuous processing is similar to the difference between using a ferry boat to transport cars and people across a river as opposed to a bridge – which is continuous.

Dr. Huff said:

“A ferry moves cars across a river one batch at a time. A bridge provides a continuous flow of cars across the river. A bridge is typically open, with the flexibility to meet demand, without having a line-up of cars waiting for the next trip across.”

Henry Ford popularized the assembly line technique of mass production in the 1910s and 1920s by introducing chain, or sequential production, to the Ford Motor Company.

The medication production process typically involves:

  • Making a batch of ingredients undergo batch-wise reactions isolating the active ingredient into containers.
  • Processing the pharmaceutical active ingredient into a granular form and bulking it into containers again.
  • Drying and compressing the granular product into tablets which are then coated.

Dr. Huff said that this process is not effective, because during each of these steps some of the ingredients are inevitably lost. In addition, this technique can sometimes take weeks to produce a batch.

However, if medicines were produced in an assembly-line technique, these individual batch steps would occur continuously – improving efficiency. In addition, any monitoring and quality-control testing could be fully integrated into the continuous process.

The reasons why the pharmaceutical industry continues to produce medications in a batch-wise fashion are:

  1. Lack of technology to ensure quality and purity of the product
  2. Pharmaceutical companies do not have the experience
  3. The high capital costs of redesigning production lines

If the industry were to adopt continuous processing, there would be:

  • Faster production
  • Reduced costs
  • Flexibility to tailor production to demand

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has even said that there are no regulatory hurdles against the industry adopting the technique.

Huff concluded:

“By early next year, Eli Lilly and Company will have installed and demonstrated four different continuous-processing platforms. Currently, almost all of our potential medicines that are in development have continuous-processing steps in place.”