From on-demand small-scale medicine production at pharmacies and hospitals, to dosage-adjusted medication and multi-drug tablets. Together with PHOENIX group, one of Europe’s leading pharmaceutical wholesalers and retailers, TNO worked on unlocking the potential of 3D printing as a transformative technology for the healthcare of tomorrow.

3D printing’s transformative power opens up new opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to create precision medicine.

Florian Eder is Digital Project Portfolio Manager at PHOENIX group: “In addition to our wholesale and retail activities in pharma, our company provides customers with blistering and compounding services, producing very small batches of patient specific drugs in some of our markets. But the healthcare industry has been talking about 3D printed drugs for quite some time. So we were wondering what value 3D printing technology could bring to the products and services we already offer to our customers.”

‘Understanding 3D printing opportunities with disruptive potential’

For pharmacists and hospitals with their small-scale, personalised medicine production as well as their particular packaging and distribution demands, 3D printing enables production of targeted, highly effective, and patient-friendly formulations. The printing of made-to-measure structures, textures, and compositions makes it possible to produce dosage forms tailored to the needs of one particular patient.

Combining several functionalities in one single tablet holds a promise for patients, who take multiple medicines every day, to only have to remember to take one tablet. At the same time, 3D printing offers the possibility for on-demand medicine production by pharmacists and hospitals.

Teaming up with TNO

3D printed tablet unrelated to the project

To conduct a technical feasibility study on additive manufacturing, as 3D printing is often called, Florian Eder and his team had specific requirements for finding the right partner. “3D printing in pharma is a highly complex topic, and we are certainly no experts in mechanical engineering so we were looking for experienced partners. Our objective was to better understand what possibilities the technology already offers in our highly regulated environment. And that’s why we decided to team up with TNO, who already had solid knowledge and references for 3D printing at that time.”

Intense collaboration

In 2020 PHOENIX group successfully concluded their feasibility study resulting in a better understanding of technological, legal and economic requirements, as well as proof of concept demonstrators. “We reached all of our objectives with this study”, Florian Eder reflects.

“What I really liked about the partnership with TNO was our communication, which was always at eye level. I would say this was more than just a research partnership; it was an intense collaboration, even though we were based at different locations. Another great thing about partnering with TNO is their large network. During the project we were not only talking to experts from TNO but also with a number of people from their start-up community and external partners, which was very valuable for us.”

Patient first

Looking at 3D printing for the pharmaceutical industry, Florian Eder is confident that this technology has the power to be disruptive.

“With patient and health data becoming more and more digitalised, demand for precision diagnosis and therapy is growing. Ever since we started looking into 3D printing, there have been many effective studies at hospitals. Quite some hospitals invested in printing equipment and they have become very successful use cases. The important thing with new technologies is that you don’t simply fit them into an existing process, but you really have to understand new opportunities they have to offer.”

“For example, if we simply replaced today’s manual compounding process by a machine, the product would still remain the same. 3D printing goes beyond that. This technology offers customer benefits that we could never have achieved with the current production methods. For example, 3D printing enables the combination of multiple active pharmaceutical ingredients into one drug, so patients just need to remember to take one pill a day. This makes their life easier and in the end, health care should be about the patient, and the patient only.”

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About the PHOENIX group

The PHOENIX group, headquartered in Mannheim, is a leading healthcare provider in Europe. Active in 27 countries, the company offers unique geographical coverage throughout Europe, making a vital contribution to comprehensive healthcare with more than 39,000 employees. The PHOENIX group’s vision is to be the best integrated healthcare provider – wherever it is active.

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Ing. Daniel van der Linden