Integrated Continuous Manufacturing (ICM) assembly line for pharmaceuticals.

A drug-making facility built from bespoke parts takes up no more space than a boxing ring. Credit: Studio Baraldi sas

Chemistry

Mini-factory churns out drug cheaply and at a furious pace

A small, fully automated assembly line can produce 4,800 tablets an hour and could make drugs more widely available.

Pharmaceuticals are notorious as some of the most inefficient of all chemicals to produce. To slash the space, time and resources it takes to manufacture drugs, researchers have built a complete pharmaceutical factory with a footprint of just 30.7 square metres.

Chuntian Hu and Salvatore Mascia at CONTINUUS Pharmaceuticals in Woburn, Massachusetts, and their colleagues made drug-factory components that are smaller than those in a standard drug-production line. These components saved space and allowed the team to skip some steps required in conventional drug manufacturing.

The resulting facility makes and purifies an undisclosed generic drug in 30 hours. A two-step process yields tiny crystals of the drug that are then washed, dried and moulded into tablets. Sensors check the purity of the intermediate and final products at key stages.

The authors estimate that this process is 35–40% cheaper than the current method for producing the generic drug, and consumes only 40–50% of the energy.

The factory’s equipment can be quickly reconfigured for different dosages or products. Such small, stand-alone pharmaceutical factories could allow drug manufacturing to be decentralized, improving access and lowering costs, the researchers write.