Pharmacy automation has come a long way in the last 25 years. Automation takes on many forms in the pharmacy – ‘Pack Dispensing’ (whole pack) and ‘Dose Dispensing’ (individual tablet) has evolved in different markets based on prescribing practices driven by Government regulations.
Pack dispensing first appeared in the market in the mid-1990’s in Europe, driven out of innovation from manufacturers in Germany. The medicines landscape in Germany, Austria and Switzerland was quite different to anywhere else in the world.
A typical German pharmacy holds over 10,000 dispensary SKU’s and the dispense frequency is quite low, a fast-moving item may be dispensed several times per day. The breadth of range is driven by each private health insurer, every company supports a different generic manufacturer. The impact on a pharmacy dispensary is therefore significant, they must hold the same molecule drug for up to 6 different suppliers and the storage required for this is costly when looking at the current retail rental costs per square metre.
Because of this set of circumstances, an automated solution known as ‘Random Chaotic’ was created. The result was a machine which stored each medication in a designated spot or compartment, based on the available pack size having an available spot in the machine. This place is determined by the machine’s brain, based on algorithms designed to use the storage space in an optimal way but seemingly ‘chaotic’ to the layman. This is where the term ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’ came from.
In France, the Netherlands, UK, Spain and Scandinavia, the product portfolio was much narrower. They carried around 2,000 dispensary SKU’s with comparatively higher stock turns. These markets required a machine which could store up to 10 packages of the same medicine and operated on the same principles as a vending machine – this became known as a ‘Channel Robot.’
Channel machines can be differentiated by those which use a picking arm and those which have individual triggers at every channel. In this case the packages are not individually picked but dropped from the channels to a conveyor belt. An integrated lift then transports the packages to the respective exit chute or point. This is a particularly fast way of picking and therefore used in ultra high-volume dispensaries such as Chinese hospital pharmacies, which dispense up to 8,000 items per day.
In Australia, the average pharmacy carries 2,000 SKU’s, the top 100 drugs account for around 56% of items dispensed. It is a market which is characterised by a relatively narrow range of drugs, dispensed frequently, referred to as fast moving drugs. The generic is selected by the pharmacy owner. The slowest moving drugs i.e. dispensed once per week or less, comprises 875 SKU’s of items dispensed (25% of all items dispensed).
In the U.S.A. and New Zealand, the technology applied to achieve the same goals is different again. Most medication is dispensed at an individual pill level and in customised packaging i.e. not in manufacturer’s packs. Therefore, machines which pick individual pills and dispense them into sachets, blisters or vials have been developed, these are referred to as ‘Dose Robots.’
As the overview of history and different robotics types would suggest, there is no such thing as the ‘best’ machine. Considerations for determining the most appropriate dispensing automation are based on factors including pharmacy location, drug dispensing profile, instore stock management principles, capital investment approach and alignment to individual business objectives.
Willach is in the fortunate position where they have all options available and are therefore technology agnostic. By focussing on understanding each owner’s business, their objectives and creating a dispense profile, the data is input into a model which empowers owners with information to assist with making any decisions.