Newpharma – Human-centric Automation

Newpharma lives up to its name as an automated, digital pharmacist, but first and foremost it is a business built around people.

Newpharma is an online pharmacy and parapharmacy, but in terms of service, it aims to complete as a pharmacy offering a real pharmacy experience, making health and wellbeing easy, simple and affordable for everyone.

The business relies on three key assets, its own in-house software development for all core applications, a broadly skilled team of pharmacists and an efficient logistics framework for orders processing.

“We always insisted to keep our IT in-house, in the online world today, we need to move fast with tailor-made developments by an IT team who understands the business we’re in and its constraints; so, we keep that in house,” says Pierre De Lit, COO of Newpharma.

Newpharma also boasts a team of 12 certified pharmacists and four assistants who are continuing to learn and train – in fact, pharmacists working in Newpharma only do what they have graduated for and are not encumbered by stock management, accountancy or real estate related tasks typically performed by street pharmacists.

“We propose an extremely large assortment of products, but more importantly, we’re a pharmacy and we provide information and advice to a very large audience. Even pharmacists consult our website to see if a product exists.”

This includes automated advice when people buy products or devices that patients require information for.  For instance, Newpharma provides customers with detailed instructions to make sure they appropriately use Covid tests.

Newpharma also sets itself apart through the rigorous standards it applies.

“The four-eyes principle is key in our order validation process for pharmaceutical products.  Every order is checked by two certified pharmacists,” De Lit explains. “Such controls allow us to isolate and notify possible interactions between medicines or between food supplements taking into account previous orders of the patient. Being able to consult the historic orders from the patient when needed increases the relevancy of the advice we give. With or without medications, 60% of all orders are going through pharmaceutical validation.”

But while human skills and knowledge are foundational to the Newpharma model, they are consistently leveraged by the latest technologies.

Automated Shelves

Newpharma uses a goods-to-man technology, developed by Scallog, and implemented by Smart Technics, the technology partner from the Colruyt Group. The goods-to-man system works by having the automated pharmaceutical shelves come to the human operator’s station where they can pick and replenish the products as needed.

“Instead of operators walking down aisles, we bring the shelf to them,” De Lit says. “There is a put-to-light system that guides staff step-by-step, to tell operators which product to put where, with a mechanism for operators to acknowledge they’ve performed the required task. They are completely guided and when they have performed tasks related to one shelf, it slides away and the next shelf comes along.”

Newpharma’s fleet consists of 20 robots managing a park of 150 shelves, which the company introduced for three key reasons.

“The first is we needed the space,” De Lit points out. “The system is much more compact than a manual system where you need to have access to every shelf. Here you can pack shelves together and the robot takes them out and brings them to the operator.”

The second reason is one of the costs.

“If we want to make health and wellbeing affordable, we need to reduce costs as much as possible on our side,” De Lit points out.

Finally, automation further enforces the quality that Newpharma is recognised for.

“Sorting errors are reduced because operators are guided through the whole system, with checks at every step,” De Lit says. “We also create much less damage on the products themselves. It’s pure mathematics- the system allows us to bypass two sorting steps and go directly to the third one, which means fragile products are handled less, reducing potential damage.”

Given how well the system was implemented across Newpharma, it is perhaps surprising that the technology is only being implemented as a pilot scheme.

“What’s exciting about the way we did it is that we’re officially still in pilot mode, but we launched the pilot with about 5% of our real production orders and scaled up rapidly,” De Lit says. “It forced us to deal with problems as soon they appear. Scallog is part of our production environment, so we improve and hone the whole system and ask why any part of it isn’t working as we go. We’re quite solution orientated, and it’s an amazing learning platform. We correct based on issues we meet on a daily basis.”

Human-centric

When a business brings in an automated solution, it is not uncommon for staff to become nervous, and De Lit was quick to address these concerns among Newpharma’s staff.

“We were a pretty manual company, and when we presented the automation project, operators had questions. There were fears that we would lay-off people, so we spent a lot of time explaining why we had to introduce the system,” De Lit says. “It’s a simple story, we were growing so fast we needed help to keep up with demand. We needed these enhancements to serve clients. We presented the project and its rationale, showed our people the installation and they quickly became promotors of the system.”

While nobody was going to be made redundant, a degree of upskilling was still necessary.

“You need operators who are used to working manually to learn how to manage a fully automated system,” De Lit explains. “The first levels of maintenance will be entrusted to our operators too. We initially overstaffed to ensure we trained a sufficient number of people, even when the installation was running on low volumes, the system allows us to make sure people wouldn’t lose the knowledge they’d gained.”

Automation is a path that Newpharma is set to continue to go down, but only as necessary.

“We started automating when we needed the capacity it provided, we didn’t do it the other way around, buying automated capacity then finding the orders to fill it. We will continue to automate but only to keep the pace,” De Lit says. “The next trend is leveraging Cobots, robots working next to an operator. There are manual tasks I would like to automate, and the combination of vision systems and grippers allows us to sort parts out of a bulk and sort them out on shelves. This is probably one of the next steps in automation.”

However, Newpharma is also looking beyond automation, to new frontiers. “Providing skin care advice based on an image is an example. We want to reinvent the pharmacy experience as technologies displace the frontier between online and brick-and-mortar channels,” Del Lit says.

Always, however, Newpharma’s course forwards will be charted by human needs.

“We’re talking about a lot of automation, but it is also important the business stays human and human-centric,” De Lit tells us. “From my standpoint, the most important part of the project is that people get enthusiastic about automation and want to help get the best out of it to serve our clients better. It’s a human business.”

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