The hidden difficulties of changing pharma packaging

Kin Chun Cheung, Dominiek Rossillion & John Nuyens Facebook Linkedin

When changing packaging, the first thing a pharmaceutical manufacturer will think of is registration: the process of acquiring approval to market a product. It is a challenge in itself, but you also need to be aware of other more 'hidden' difficulties.

What is packaging?

To understand the challenges in changing (pharmaceutical) packaging, we first will have a closer look at packaging. Packaging, from a handling perspective, is a means to protect products from deterioration during storage transport to and reception by the intended client, but also from outside influences like air, water vapour, microorganisms and other contaminants. By using packaging, a product will also get a more uniform shape, making it easier to ship and store and, because it is covered, impossible to identify from the outside.

Registration of pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceutical products require registration. Registration is the process of acquiring approval to start introducing a product into a specific market. It is a detailed summary containing extensive information about: the active substance, the raw materials, batch sizes, equipment used, production parameters, the potency, clinical trial information, the packaging format and other relevant product specifications.

When looking in detail at the packaging section of a registration file, every pharmaceutical product bought at a pharmacy is registered in the format in which it is delivered: from the cardboard box and its print to the plastic type and shape of the primary packaging and the way it is produced. When it comes to registration, packaging and its design are dynamic. Changes to the container may influence important tests (such as a stability test), shelf life and other factors.

The registration file

Before making changes to a pharmaceutical or its packaging, the manufacturer needs to acquire approval from the relevant authority (this could be the FDA or another agency depending on the market that they wish to enter). The registration file is a dynamic document that can change during the life cycle of a pharmaceutical product. All changes, major or minor, to the production and presentation of a product need to be registered. The government of every country in which a product is marketed will only allow distribution after reviewing this file. All changes have to be documented and submitted separately per market. Submitting changes can also lead to audits with a strong focus on the involved product.

Effect on APIs

Manufacturers producing raw materials such as active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) also have to deal with registration. Any change made to an API can also affect a final product, so both registration files need to be updated. This includes changes to primary, secondary and/or tertiary packaging such as bags, drums, bulk containers and cardboard boxes.


As we explained before, there are more elements besides legislation that play a part in changing packaging. To uncover all possible aspects, we will discuss a business case of a fictional company that manufactures a very demanding (sterile) product.

The manufacturer in case uses approximately 100 small container filled with 1 kg of sterile active ingredients to formulate a batch. Adding the API to the formulation process is done manually: an operator empties the containers in a formulation vessel which is placed in a sterile booth.

In order to improve this process and reduce manual handling, a new larger container is required which will allow processing the same amount of API with fewer manual interventions and less risk of contamination. The manufacturer therefor decides to increase the capacity tenfold resulting in a 10 kg container and reduction of manual interventions from 100 to 10.

The API is registered, which means changing packaging will lead to changing the registration file. If the registration file is included in the registration file of the final product (e.g. the lot sizes of raw material), that document will also have to be modified.

Stability testing

Another chapter of the registration file concerns stability testing: usually a representative sample is required for stability testing. In most cases a number of containers are kept aside (annually) for stability testing so there is no discussion about its representativeness. In our case, with the new container, 10 kg would be a significant product loss (because this cannot be processed thus sold) but a smaller sample size might not be representative. The API is sterilised after filling and sterilising a small and big amount may have different results.

Logistics and processing

Change of dimensions and capacity can also influence the way a product is shipped and how it can be impacted during transport, intermediate storage or handling (e.g. damage or decay).

There are two other activities in each process beside transport: formulation and processing. All steps in the process need to re-considered. In our case, the process involves a lot of manual handling. The containers are moved between different areas using carts. Switching to a different capacity probably also means changing carts which are more suitable for the handling of the larger containers.

During formulation, the containers are lifted manually. So what about Health & Safety or ergonomics? Lifting 1 kg is considered safe and will not cause injury, but lifting 10 kg from the ground to processing height is not a sustainable solution for routine operations. Our formulation area needs a mechanical lift to handle the containers. The lift (and possible other tools) should be made of stainless steel (pharmaceutical grade) which will increase the budget. A similar lift is needed in the processing area, where sterile conditions apply. And then there is the question whether the current installation is suitable to be equipped with new tools.

This case shows that changing packaging can have a severe influence on all aspects of the production process and requires thorough analysis. To avoid high unexpected project costs, a multi-disciplinary impact assessment has to be performed on the product flow during the concept phase in which a packaging developer or manufacturer should be involved in the earliest possible stage.

Proper change control goes beyond your own organisation. It not only encompasses the entire supply chain but also requires a multi-disciplinary approach. CurTec applies a similar approach when performing a packaging requirement scan. We review your entire supply chain in order to advise you about the best possible packaging solution.

What is a packaging scan?



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