Material Handling Systems in the Pharmaceutical & Medical Industry

Pharmaceutical and medical manufacturers and distributors are under constant pressure to produce and deliver more products while also improving the efficiency of their operations.  They must do this in the face of rigorous standards for quality and safety.  As a result, drug manufacturers and wholesale distributors need to be aware of every detail of their operations to reduce the risk of recalls, fines and loss of license.  To manage operational details and meet strict industry requirements, companies are implementing automated warehouse systems that provide real-time quality, inventory management and other key data to enhance operational efficiencies and safety, and drive down costs.


Here’s a closer look at the unique distribution, manufacturing, and warehousing requirements of the pharmaceutical industry.

Compliance With Industry Requirements

In the pharmaceutical industry, keeping track of the “usable life end date” is a priority. Warehouse staff must have quick access to information on expiration dates for every drug stored. The warehouse is responsible for delivering the right batch to the right place. Fortunately, warehouse management systems and better facility layouts have virtually eliminated situations where drugs with shorter expiration dates are left on the shelf, while drugs with longer expiration dates were shipped prematurely.

Many experts believe warehouse management systems should be implemented by specialized experts who can ensure the warehouse receive the full benefits, including cost savings and reductions in human error.

Navigating a Complex Distribution Process and Regulatory Maze   

The pharmaceuticals distribution process consists of myriad complex activities that demand extremely high security standards and a continuous sharing of information. Maintaining maximum control over the process and ensuring a direct line of site to every step within the process are critical determinants of efficient and effective warehouse management. For those on the outside, a drug’s pathway from the manufacturer to patient may seem easy, but it’s not. It requires a warehouse management approach capable of recording even the smallest movement of goods to track, accelerate and maximize the movement of product throughout the warehouse and the accuracy of deliveries to customers.

Pharmaceutical warehouse standards are unique compared to industrial standards for obvious reasons. After all, it’s easy to imagine the ensuing chaos that would occur if healthcare facilities received the wrong shipments. And, with thousands of deliveries at stake, the best way to mitigate or avoid human error is to use state-of-the-art information management systems.

Distributors must stock, pick and ship product in ways that comply with regulations while still meeting the demanding needs of pharmaceutical customers. Warehouse management solutions include both software and hardware to ensure accuracy of inventory and organization of product services, such as shipping, receiving, inventory management, facility layout and purchasing, to name just a few.

Use of the right software is an important aspect of pharmaceutical company’s supply chain, and it’s critical to the success of overall warehouse management process. The right software simplifies the processing of inventory as it passes through automation, ensuring maximum control and lot tracking at every process step throughout the warehouse.

Although software solutions are important tools, human error can make it difficult to operate an efficient warehouse operation. Some of the more common mistakes are associated with inefficient warehouse layout, insufficient knowledge about the inventory on hand, and poor training of warehouse personnel.

Warehouse Layout Enhances Delivery Speed and Accuracy


A well-planned, logical warehouse layout is critical to the successful operation of any warehouse. Think of a warehouse as an architectural blueprint — it should be easy to navigate with each section of the blueprint clearly defined. Warehouses often store materials in bins scattered around the facility, which makes it difficult locate a given product and causes shipping delays and errors. To avoid this, some warehouses establish naming conventions for their bins, making it easier and faster for workers to find products. Naming the bins and laying out the warehouse in way that corresponds with the information on a bin tag goes a long way toward ensuring warehouse efficiency.

Knowledge About the Products

Your knowledge of the products, and the knowledge of your staff, will help determine the best layout for your warehouse — and will determine the ultimate success of the software system you install. For example, place fast moving products closer to picking lanes that are close to shipping areas, and place bulk areas in locations that facilitate easy, fast bin replenishment. Also, identify appropriate areas for materials that need cage, cooler and vault storage.

Stay attuned to how and which products are moving, so you can rearrange their location in the warehouse periodically, as needed. A good warehouse management system will track process performance, including the efficiency with which products move in and out of the facility.

In a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, segregate products that might be expensive, dangerous, or hazardous. Lock them away in a safe zone if necessary. Be sure to maintain records of date tracking, because most products have expiration dates. Avoid shipping outdated or near-date products at all costs.

Bringing People and Technology Together

Another important aspect of developing an effective warehouse operation is the staff. How many people you have will is key; if you have a large staff, consider organizing them into smaller, specialized work groups.

Prior to installing warehouse management software, be sure to test it for compatibility with existing technologies and automation systems, such as RF scanners, conveyors, and carousels. After your warehouse management system, has been selected, tested, and implemented, you’ll need to train employees on every aspect of the system to ensure warehouse inventory is being moved and tracked efficiently.

Regardless of whether it’s returns, order management, bar code and radio-frequency (RF) data collection, or other software, your people are the keys to making your investment in technology pay off.

 Material Handling Equipment in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Pharmaceutical conveyors require precision and control. They must be durable and provide dependable transportation for products ranging from syringes, to surgical scrubs and pill bottles.

Clean in Place Conveying Systems

Conveyors for medical and pharmaceutical warehouses are generally designed with specific requirements in mind, including ease of cleaning, disassembly and maintenance.  They must also be designed to meet containment level regulations.  The types of conveyors available include those maximized for containment, systems integration for batch and continuous processing, and clean-in-place (CIP) designs. The clean in place option is popular because it allows virtually every component of the system to be easily cleaned without taking the conveyor apart.


With CIP systems, cleaning is faster, requires less labor, is repeatable and presents less risk of chemical exposure chemical to workers. CIP systems are fully automated including features such as programmable logic, multiple balance tanks, valves, data acquisition and custom spray nozzle systems.

When sanitary requirements are a factor, stainless steel conveyors are an option.  These designs are also easy to clean and are designed to prevent cross-contamination.

Material Handling Systems Integration 

Splicing together several different material handling technologies to create a complete functional system is important for any warehouse. Solutions contain as many or as few components as are required to accomplish the goals of your project, and the right combination can yield many benefits:

  • Carton pack rate increases. A warehouse management system determines carton content up front, how many cartons you’ll need, and the required carton sizes, increasing the efficiency of the picking and packing process.
  • Operating cost reductions. By increasing the efficiency of the picking and packing process, more product get out the door during the week, reducing overtime and weekend labor costs.
  • Information availability. A good warehouse system provides visibility to key statistical information which makes managing the operation a lot easier and more accurate.

Types of Conveyors

Conveyors come in many shapes and sizes to meet just about any warehouse need. Here’s a look at some commonly used conveyors:

  • Pharmaceutical belt conveyorThe belt conveyor is a simple solution that uses pulleys to quickly transport products along a belt. It is a popular choice because it’s easy to use and flexible. When configured specifically to your warehouse, belt conveyors are very economical because their speed and efficiency reduce labor costs without compromising accuracy.
  • Flexible/extendable conveyor: This is popular when versatile speed performance is needed. It can be installed in minutes, and is ideal for fast loading and unloading of trucks and cost effectiveness.
  • Line-shaft conveyorThis conveyor is a cost-effective solution to order transportation and accumulation requirements. It employs a line shaft with drive spools that line the shaft along the length of the conveyor. The spools have tensioned urethane bands that attach to gravity rollers; as the line shaft spins, it turns the spools, which then spin the urethane bands on the rollers, which causes them to turn. The spools are engineered to slip, which allows maximum accumulation without product damage.
  • Heavy-duty roller conveyor system: This system delivers automation to the order fulfillment operation. Automation provides the benefits of systems-driven decision-making versus human-driven decision-making, resulting better pick efficiencies, improved quality control and lower process times.
  • Vertical conveyor: This is an excellent solution if you want to elevate product within a small footprint. This type of conveyor can easily transport products between multiple levels speedily and safely. The conveyor system can be designed to meet specific space constraints using C- and S-shaped configurations. A vertical conveyor can accommodate up to 50 units per minute, and can transport totes, cartons, trays and pallets. It is designed for low maintenance, vibration-free and quiet operation.


  • Spiral conveyor: A spiral conveyor is great for transporting products between multi-level elevations. It can handle a single infeed and single discharge and up to two or more discharges. It can be employed for lifting or lowering products. A continuous running belt results in high throughput with speeds of up to 200 FPM.
  • Sortation conveyor.:This is an important part of an automated system. Sortation conveyor systems facilitate high product through put, which is transported down dedicated lanes. The sortation logic is built upon specific business rules and can be adjusted to add or remove lanes when necessary.

Medical and Pharmaceutical Good Manufacturing Practices

Conveyor designs for pharmaceutical applications are designed to meet rigorous regulatory and industry requirements that are embodied in good manufacturing practices (cGMP). It’s important to comply with good manufacturing practice guidelines because they are strongly recommended by the regulatory agencies that are responsible for authorizing and licensing the manufacture and sale of pharmaceuticals.

cGMP provides minimum requirements intended to ensure that pharmaceutical products are high quality and safe for consumers. Various agencies also regulate good laboratory and good clinical practices.

National Association Of Boards Of Pharmacy VAWD Accreditation

The National Association of Boards of Accreditation (NABP) is an industry organization that awards accreditation─Verified-Accredited Wholesale Distributors (VAWD) accreditation─to warehouses involved in the wholesale distribution pharmaceuticals. To receive this accreditation, facilities must successfully pass scrutiny for compliance with NABP guidelines related to operating policies and licensing confirmations among other things.

Accreditation is an important way to prevent counterfeit pharmaceuticals from coming into the United States, protecting people from counterfeit, diverted and contaminated products.  Prescription medicines are manufactured and distributed through a complex supply network, and VAWD accreditation makes sure distribution facilities operate legally with proper licensing, and that they employ adequate security and distribution best practices. Currently there are nearly 600 “Verified-Accredited Wholesale Distributors” in the U.S.  Accreditation lasts three years.

Lucrative Industry With Strong Lean Requirements

As in any industry, purchasing managers in the pharmaceutical industry look for ways to lower the cost of their pharmaceutical conveyor systems. This is often accomplished with the use of automation and manufacturing line control. These can help reduce process costs and streamline the packaging process for pharmaceutical and personal care products.

What Does The Future Look Like?


Global innovation is driving the pharmaceutical industry forward. Although North America and Europe submit the most life science Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications per year — 41% and 31% share, respectively, seismic shifts are at play.  The number of PCT applications, which an output measure acknowledged by the international scientific community, is increasing in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the gap is expected to continue to narrow.

This trend is partly due to a shift of chronic biological maturity in diseases to developed from to developing countries. As a result, there is a trend in some cities and companies to personalized biologics and care. An example are the biosimilars that are being seen in the U.S. and Europe.  Conversely, he focal point in the Middle East and North Africa is now diabetes.

Systems integrators like Logic Material Handling are experts at designing and installing complete material handling systems that bring together the best combination of automationsoftwarestatic equipment and labor to create an  optimized warehouse management system. Whether the need is for an entire facility implementation or a standalone system, systems integrators have deep knowledge of equipment application engineering, systems integration, and controls and software engineering to meet most warehouse needs.