The warehouse or distribution center is ‘Mission Control’ for life sciences and healthcare logistics. Here is where the optimal configurations of pharmaceuticals and medical devices are amassed in precise quantities, safely protected from temperature excursions, shock and water ingress, meticulously recorded and labeled, strategically positioned and scheduled for rotation, and ready for shipment the moment the next dispatch request is received from a nearby hospital.

Because these items are boxed or crated, transported by conveyors or forklifts, and stored on numbered racks and shelves, we tend to think of them in physical terms. But technology is taking over fast. In fact, today the life sciences and healthcare warehouse is becoming fully digitized. All of these actual items now correspond to virtual objects – every blister pack of prescription medicines has a digital avatar, every piece of life sciences equipment is described by unique data blocks. And thus defined in bits and bytes, these items can be usefully manipulated – amassed for in-depth analytics, subjected to sophisticated ‘what-if’ scenarios, combined for greater customer centricity, and much more.

My interest in digitalization is both broad and deep. I have seen at close hand how technology can create new efficiencies and contribute to higher levels of productivity in the warehouse, while also making a substantial contribution to lower operational costs and to valuable competitive advantage.

Currently we are collaborating with several of our life sciences and healthcare customers, exploring the potential of digital transformation specifically in their warehouses and distribution centers. For example, we are involved in a substantial pilot to investigate potential productivity gains with a multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company. We have equipped an entire warehouse with Wi-Fi infrastructure beacons enabling precise location of tagged items throughout the facility. In addition, warehouse personnel are supported by robots undertaking repetitive and heavy-lift activities, and safety is enhanced with the use of heat maps that clearly track the movement of assets and people throughout the warehouse.

We are also intensively involved with the application of augmented reality (AR) in the life sciences and healthcare warehouse. With one of the world’s premier biopharmaceutical companies, we are piloting an innovative warehouse ‘vision picking’ solution in Australia. Together we hope to establish whether AR smart glasses can be used for order picking in a more cost-efficient manner than standard manual scanning processes. Warehouse personnel see the digital picking list and the optimal warehouse route in their field of vision (an ‘augmented’ view) to save time, reduce errors and enable real-time inventory updates. Similar pilots with other companies in Mexico and in the Netherlands have achieved 15-25% productivity gains.

Technology is no longer playing a supporting role in life sciences and healthcare. It is not just changing how life sciences and healthcare companies are tackling service parts logistics, last-mile delivery and other challenges, but is fundamentally transforming life sciences and healthcare warehouses and supply chains. I will return to this topic in a couple of months’ time. Meanwhile, if you have any questions do get in touch with me.

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Published: May 2017

Image: shutterstock