The impact of Covid-19 has been felt – at least to some extent – by every area of the medical devices industry, and the production side of things is no exception. Craig Stobie, director of global sector management at Domino Printing Sciences, discusses why creating and maintaining supply chain agility and versatility is critical moving forward.


Supply chain resilience has never been more important.

Global markets are evolving quickly due to increasing legislative requirements, the acceleration of the digital economy, and not least of all, challenges of supply due to global lockdown.

The inevitability is that patients, caregivers, and fee payers will expect manufacturers to continue to deliver the same quality of products, while demanding a greater range of SKUs (stock keeping units) – often with more complex traceability and identification requirements.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already demonstrated that those with manufacturing and supply chain agility can benefit significantly.

As the effects of the global pandemic are expected to last well into 2021, adding contingency and agility into supply chain operations has become a priority for many businesses.


Changing customer behaviour

Throughout the pandemic, buying models have evolved, necessitating further changes to manufacturing operations.

The global lockdown encouraged many individuals to embrace ecommerce for the first time – raising the need for companies to flex dynamically between bricks and mortar and ecommerce sales.

Importantly, packaging requirements for ecommerce shipments are very different to standard retail, for example, with products sent out in different batch sizes, demanding a change to both coding and the end-of-line production schedule.

As we enter a second wave of the pandemic, it is clear that consumers are not rushing back to the high street; suggesting that brands will need to dynamically manage a hybrid sales model – and the associated implications on packaging – for some time.

Customer expectations with regards to product safety and hygiene are also creating new trends within product packaging, trends that often reverse the inroads made with sustainability and away from plastic that has occurred over recent years.


Supply chain agility through automation

For companies still reliant upon traditional, manual production processes with pre-printed packaging, the past few months have been extremely challenging.

Building in contingency, dynamically reducing SKUs, and managing the evolving mix of bricks-and-mortar and ecommerce means an urgent need for control.

The necessary levels of control and agility can only be achieved by creating trusted, repeatable processes that improve efficiency and reduce the risk of expensive errors – adopting automation in coding and marking is one way that manufacturers in all industries can look to achieve this.

To take a recent example, one well-known food manufacturer – who fully automated coding through their SAP (systems applications and products in data processing) – was able to successfully eliminate coding errors, and significantly increase productivity by removing associated downtime that typically accounted for as much as two hours each day.

Similarly, a major beverage company, where gaps in coding processes had previously led to a $40,000 recall,  completely removed human intervention failures with the introduction of integrated automation, mitigating production risk and increasing efficiency by 100%.

By automating coding solutions, manufacturers can streamline production processes, reduce downtime by improving product changeovers, and benefit from greater visibility of what is happening in real-time on a production line.

Moreover, utilising vision control alongside coding automation to check codes can help to avoid unnecessary waste when a problem does arise.


Late-stage customisation in the medical sector

The ability of late-stage customisation, where more of the product identification is completed during manufacturing, is also becoming critical in enabling the flexibility and agility needed to adapt to market changes.

In the past, many manufacturers would purchase packaging that was 99% pre-printed ‘fixed information’ with the remaining 1% ‘variable information’, including batch codes, added within the manufacturing operations.

However, as labelling requirements become more complex, manufacturers are realising the need to print more variable information as part of the manufacturing process.

In medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturing, more and more companies are realising the benefit of digital printing technologies in providing solutions for product labelling and identification as part of manufacturing operations.

Bringing this capability ‘in house’ shifts the reliance from external packaging material providers, allowing manufacturers to respond more easily to demand, and adapt to changes in regulatory requirements while driving down costs and reducing packaging waste.

Of course, it is also important that any late-stage printing process aligns with the toxicological requirements of the product and manufacturing site.

Any ink must be robust and give excellent readability. It should not be distinguishable from pre-printed identification, which is why 600 dpi (dots per inch) is the recommended standard for any solution.


Planning for the future

One thing for sure is that in the current geo-political climate, it is more important than ever for manufacturers to remain flexible and agile, in order to respond to sudden changes in supply and demand.

On modern-day production lines, manual processes, and reliance on external providers can be a barrier to success.

To achieve the rapid change and adjustment required to respond to supply chain disruption – be it due to economics, weather, or health events – automation and production line agility are essential.

As we move beyond the current crisis, manufacturers who take the opportunity to automate their coding solutions, and realise the benefits of enhanced control and late-stage customisation, will find themselves better equipped to continue production, whatever the future holds.