IHS Chemical Week


Square Plug in a Round Hole: Does this Scenario Exist in Pharmaceuticals?

4:31 AM MDT | August 25, 2010 | By GIRISH MALHOTRA

A ‘square plug in a round hole’ is a statement about situations that do not fit in normal life but under the right circumstances we can live with them. If this happens in a manufacturing operation, common wisdom is that money is lost on such a product/process and it would not be commercialized. However, if it happens in an operation where the money can be recovered by passing the inefficiency costs to the customers, would anyone worry? Probably not! It would be worth exploring if such a scenario prevails in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
Chemists/chemical engineers develop an optimum (quality by design) process for an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API). During the scale-up and commercialization process they find that they do not have the right size equipment and/or the configuration that exacts their desired process. However, there is a high demand for the product. Considerable money can be earned if we produce and market this product quickly without large investment. We can alter the process or modify the existing equipment at a minimum cost to fit the process in the available equipment. The product is being produced in equipment that is not a perfect fit. It requires continuous quality analysis and equipment cleaning to minimize contamination. Would such a process be an example of “square plug in a round hole”? Further analysis might be helpful.  
Based on an optimum heat and mass balance for an API, we need equipment of size and configuration “X” to produce the product at the lowest cost. Many manufacturing sites do not have the exact size and configuration available. However, we have equipment of size and configuration “Y” and our process could be modified to fit in it. With necessary modifications undertaken, product of the desired quality can be manufactured. The costs would be higher than the costs of an optimized process. Product made by such processes would require repeated analysis of the intermediates and the final product to ensure our process and equipment would deliver the desired quality product. Necessary manufacturing protocol would have to be strictly followed and enforced. Equipment would have to be thoroughly cleaned between batches. All of the associated manufacturing costs would be passed on to the customer. Due to high demand, the product could be produced at different sites. The process or the equipment would have to be modified to fit the local situations.
Since we have force-fitted a process using equipment that is not specifically designed for it, I would call such a process a ‘square plug in a round hole.’ The producer opportunities to lower costs but since the company is able to meet or exceed their profit margins lowest cost optimized process considerations and process innovation become irrelevant.  Under these circumstances we also overlook “square plug in a round hole” connotation.
In the above scenario “quality by analysis” becomes a way of life. Pharmaceuticals are living in such an environment. Since the companies are able to demonstrate product quality repeatability, meet regulatory guidelines and achieve their profit margins having an optimum process or practicing the best manufacturing technology is not necessary. What do you think?

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