Putting aside the suggestions of robot uprising movies like "WALL-E" and "The Terminator," there is a pretty strong argument for allowing Artificial Intelligence (AI) to take over pharmaceutical production to facilitate its transition to a green industry.
Robots are the ideal employees for any industry as they are programmed to not get tired, take shortcuts, make mistakes, or even complain about their job, increasing efficiency and, therefore, reducing waste.
The potential to turn pharma, in particular, green is huge considering the typical pharmaceutical production facility consumes fifteen times the amount of energy consumed by the conventional commercial office building. This is due to various components such as the very precise HVAC system needed to keep the lab at optimal conditions for drug production and filter out harmful fumes. Not to mention, much of the waste produced by the pharma industry is hazardous waste which is much more difficult to dispose of and poses many more risks to the surrounding environment.
Without humans, the majority of temperature control and lighting requirements could be eliminated, which introduces the potential for massive energy savings as just turning off the lights alone reduces energy consumption of the overall plant by at least 2% to 3%. AI also doesn’t need gowning rooms, bathrooms, protective equipment, parking lots, or any other amenities, leading to a smaller building footprint and further reducing waste. Increased accuracy and cleanliness also means less cross contamination, fewer chemical spills, less contaminated water leaving the plant, and fewer harmful emissions.
Another self-automated phenomenon that could reinvent the pharma industry as a green industry is 3D printing. In 2015, the FDA approved the first 3D printed drug to be sold on the market. There is also huge potential for 3D printing the labs themselves. Combining 3D printing with an innovation like Portable, Continuous, Miniature, and Modular Manufacturing (PCMM), would transform the industry. PCMM involves a portable, autonomous manufacturing environment for the production of continuous oral solid dosage (OSD) being built offsite, transported to the site, and slid into place in an open warehouse, much like stacking legos together. It eliminates the need for on-site construction which reduces waste, noise and air pollution, and contamination of nearby waterbodies. The variability of the standard construction process would be more difficult for an AI to control, but the repetitiveness and relative straightforwardness of the construction and maintenance of PCMM would be simpler for AI to manage.
Ray Szuszkiewicz, an architect at Integrated Project Services, an engineering firm that designs biopharmaceutical facilities is excited about the potential that AI has for the industry. He believes, “If we can connect all the processes starting from raw materials to shipping the finished product in one autonomous assembly line we can have a far greater impact on the environment than we can through more common sustainable approaches”. The driving factor towards integration of AI and a greener industry is that a smaller building, less construction, a cheaper, more efficient workforce, and less room for error will save companies money. The primary focus of this field is often getting a drug out onto the market quickly in order to make as large of a profit as possible before the cheaper drug store brand goes on sale. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are likely to be open to the incorporation of much more efficient AI systems.
A major setback is the large upfront investment in AI in comparison to an employee that would be paid in installments. Also, robot technology is still being adapted from performing repetitive tasks to handling the variability of the industry. It is easy to still be skeptical of the accuracy of bot produced medicine, especially with cyber hacking on the rise. Additionally, there also aren’t too many empty warehouses around for the PCMM.
Stay tuned in the coming years as we may just see a shift of the once pollution hub of the pharmaceutical industry to an AI controlled green sensation.