Digitizing the supply chain: Why Pfizer is investing in IoT, drones and...

Digitizing the supply chain: Why Pfizer is investing in IoT, drones and personalized medicine

Digitizing the supply chain: Why Pfizer is investing in IoT technologies
Digitizing the supply chain: Why Pfizer is investing in IoT technologies

Internet of Business spent five minutes with Mirko Senatore, director of the Network Solutions & Excellence Team EMEA (part of the Global Supply Chain organization) at Pfizer, to discuss digitizing the supply chain with IoT.

Can you tell us a bit about your current projects/experimentation with IoT?

Within our organization we are constantly looking at opportunities to further digitize the supply chain, in the scope of a journey which started several years ago and marked already very important milestones. Our ultimate goal is to create a highly orchestrated supply network, which guarantees full end-to-end visibility, not just to our internal stakeholders, but also to our patients. As you can imagine, this is particularly critical in an industry where a product must not only satisfy customer demand, but also be capable at times of saving human lives.

A highly orchestrated network, where information flows along with physical product, is the key to a seamless supply of medicines which improve and save lives, on the one side, and on the other, for Pfizer to continually improve its processes by focusing the efforts where they are most needed. And that needs to start from the patient perspective.

How will IoT support the move to e-commerce for the Pharma market?

This is absolutely critical. Traditionally, the pharma industry has been (and still is) much more heavily regulated than other sectors. For this reason, access to point of sale information has been systematically limited by a number of legal constraints, such as the need for protecting sensitive information about our customers; that is, patient data. The rise of IoT is driving on the one side a growing interest by the whole industry, and on the other side, the proliferation of many specialized third-party players, who could help us deal with useful aggregated data, while at the same time ensuring patient’s confidentiality.

This capability is essential to sustain the development of e-commerce, which again has been historically an off-limit area for the pharma industry, as the vast majority of sales are driven by a medical prescription (except for companies focused on over-the-counter drugs).

However, attempts to overcome the limits set by a physical prescription are starting to become more and more common, such as in the UK, where online prescription and, in turn, ordering and dispensing, are now possible. With this in mind, the industry is now starting to adopt targeted product placement strategies, whereby the electronic channel becomes completely complementary to more traditional ones.

What is the biggest challenge you faced during the move to a more connected supply chain, and how did you overcome this?

There have been multiple challenges, but one that I can easily call out is the number of different systems (often locally customized, too) which made a seamless information flow extremely difficult. Of course, this is intuitively connected to master data integrity, and is a direct consequence of multiple factors, the most important of which is, in my opinion, the number of acquisitions we have been facing in the course of the last two decades.

After one of the largest acquisitions took place in 2009, Pfizer took a deliberate decision to harmonize systems towards a unique, standard ERP [enterprise resource planning system] worldwide, covering all the broad financial, commercial and manufacturing sides of the business. Along with the forward-looking vision and enthusiasm of our leaders, we started driving the digitization and full end to end connectivity of our supply chain. While our journey is yet to be completed, the efforts deployed by all of our colleagues to make this possible were immense, and took a very strong, continued leadership focus by our top management.

You have been with Pfizer for 10 years now. Looking back, what technologies have made a significant impact in improving supply chain efficiency and visibility and, most importantly, which technologies you think will be the ‘next big thing’ in the pharma industry?

It’s very difficult to select just a few of them, but off the top of my head, I can name the breakthroughs in logistics efficiency, such as ‘pick by voice’ systems; the ‘control tower’ initiatives operated through 4PLs [fourth party logistics partners]; the real-time visibility tools also enabled by contingent technologies (for example, smartphones and tablets, which made visibility ‘handy’ – literally!); and of course the whole underlying infrastructure of data capturing and reporting through advanced analytics. Another technology-led improvement was the expansion of secondary packaging manufacturing capabilities, which enabled a wider adoption of late-stage postponement strategies.

And, last but not least, with an increasing range of temperature-sensitive drugs, active cooling and real-time temperature monitoring and control capabilities have become essential components in the portfolio of technologies.

With so many changes happening, it’s hard to predict what the next big thing will be, but if I were to gamble, I’d probably bet on the further development of DNA-based diagnosis and drug development, which will push the industry even further towards personalized medicines. This is a trend that started a few years ago as the presence of so-called ‘orphan drugs’ became more prominent.

The healthcare and pharmaceuticals market is highly regulated – does this make adoption of new technologies more complicated? How can the market overcome this?

It’s a question which somehow relates to what I mentioned before in the scope of e-commerce. Yes, undoubtedly pharma is highly regulated; however, this does not necessarily have a direct impact on the adoption of technologies per se, as long as the boundaries set by law are respected. It often is a matter of going the extra mile with the technology so as to meet those requirements. And, sometimes, whenever the existing capabilities are not sufficient, procedural controls and workarounds are possible.

An example is delivery by drones, which is not yet possible for pharma because, besides the drone technology-specific challenges, there are considerations to be drawn with regard to product integrity. From that standpoint, overcoming the barrier would not look like a major technical hurdle; however, it might be an economic viability one.

In some other cases, instead, the key barrier is the need to guarantee a patient’s confidentiality, which also explains why it is so difficult for pharma to draw point-of-sale data for demand-sensing purposes. In these cases, the most appropriate option seems to be a commitment to maintaining an open dialogue with regulators, to understand their concerns and get together mutually satisfactory solutions, which hold the key focus true: guaranteeing the patient’s well-being.

You will be speaking at the upcoming Internet of Supply Chain conference – what was your interest in contributing and what are you hoping to achieve by attending?

Besides my personal interest and passion, I believe the time is right for IoT, so now it is a matter of being ‘in and thrive’, or ‘disregard and perish’. I certainly want to belong to the former, so does my company, and I expect a highly interactive, constructive conference.

I know that many companies have embarked on this journey well before us, so I’m keen on learning from the leaders in the domain. And, of course, this must be a ‘do ut des‘, a give-and-take exercise, as there is always something you can learn from others and, hopefully, sharing my own experience will also allow others to get at least some sparks of interesting ideas.


Internet of Supply Chain is the only event bringing together Supply Chain executives representing the retailers, manufacturers and logistics operators to share best practices and inspire new revenue opportunities.
The two-day forum will offer as yet unheard case studies on how the total lifecycle of a product can be monitored in real-time and be delivered on time without any compromise in quality.
Key themes will include using IoT to improve end-to-end visibility, modernizing a legacy supply chain process and marrying manufacturing and supply chain. Click the below logo for further details…