When it comes to delivery, people don’t care much about the planes, trains, and ships involved in the process. What they do mind is how immediate a product reaches their hands. 

Whether that’s from an online store or at the shelf in a physical store — they only evaluate the success of the delivery when the products they receive are in good shape and at par with their expectations.

The journey of the products from the warehouse to the consumers is known as the last mile

All types of products can be involved in last mile — be it tech items or e-commerce goods. But when it comes to pharmaceutical products, things take a different turn. Pharma products are sensitive to certain factors. Therefore, last mile delivery, in this case, is more challenging and may require more planning than any form of distribution

But before anything else, let’s discuss in depth what is last mile delivery and how it works. 

What Is Last Mile Delivery?

Last mile, also called final mile, is the last leg of the supply chain process. The products will start from a transportation hub and then delivered to end-users. 

For example, last mile delivery of vaccines starts from a country or a regional warehouse. Handlers will then distribute vaccines to the community where health personnel wait to administer them.

the vaccination supply chain

The most important thing to remember is that last mile distribution keeps in direct contact with the consumers or recipients as opposed to other forms of distribution. 

How Does Last Mile Delivery Work?

From the supply chain perspective, everything starts with the manufacturers. The manufacturers develop and produce the products. 

The products will undergo several modes of transportation before reaching its destination. Some of the products will have to be transported across vast distances on ocean freight or air freight. Others need to be loaded in vehicles. 

Then all these products will reach the transportation hub. The transportation hub acts as the main warehouse for all the products destined to the customers and recipients. 

This is where last mile starts. Where it ends depends on the products. Some products like vaccines will go to vaccination campaigns where they will be administered to patients. Some products like frozen foods or fresh produce will go to stores or restaurants. Others like biologics and medicines are bound to hospitals and health centers. 

Here is an example of a last mile scenario involving pharmaceutical products: 

Manufacturers from South America release a shipment containing biological products. The products undergo ocean shipping through reefers or ocean refrigerators. The reefers arrive at a European port. Port handlers will take the products from the reefers and put them in refrigerated vehicles. These vehicles will forward the products to a local warehouse. The end of the first leg. 

The last mile starts from the country’s warehouse. The products will be distributed across the country through a fleet of vehicles and people tasked to reach the most distant and far-flung places. When received, people will use or consume the products. The end of last mile. 

Why Is Last Mile Delivery Important?

The pharma supply chain deals with products that are sensitive to light, time, temperature, humidity, etc. The good thing is in the first leg of the supply chain, products are well-monitored and well-controlled. 

Most products are stored in big containers that have a constant electrical connection. That’s why temperature going beyond the accepted range or sometimes called temperature excursions seldom happens. Although this journey takes the longest in the supply chain, this is where the management has the most control.

Last mile delivery, however, is a bit more difficult. Most products sit in containers with no active cooling. Frozen water-packs or phase change materials (PCMs) help prolong the cold life of containers, usually a maximum of several days. But because it has no constant power connection, temperature excursions are bound to happen. 

RCW 27 vaccine cooler
RCW 27 Cooler with ice packs for last mile vaccine delivery

Last mile distribution is important because it deals with the user directly. The result of last mile transport will determine customer satisfaction. When it results in temperature disruptions, spoilage can be a possibility. And if that transport involves life-saving vaccines and medicines, then someone’s health could be at risk. 

What Are the Things to Consider In Last Mile Transportation?

Last mile is a bit different from the previous journey of the distribution process. In this step, the result is given much importance. It tells something about the product quality and customer satisfaction and it will determine the overall impact of the distribution process, whether or not it is successful.

To prevent product wastes and achieve an efficient last mile, certain things should be considered. When these factors are well thought of, they guarantee a worry-free last mile logistics. Here they are: 

Types of Products

The first step in a successful last mile and an efficient supply chain overall is understanding the products in transit. Not all products are treated equally. Some products are fine under any temperatures, while others are more temperature-specific. 

Products that require a certain temperature need to undergo different types of supply chain such as cold chain, controlled temperature chain, and a lot more. The cold chain requires products to be stored and transported within a specific range, usually between 2°C to 8°C (36°F to 46°F).

Another specialized supply chain is the controlled-temperature chain where products can remain stable up to 40°C (104°F). The deep freeze supply chain is for products that should be frozen such as cakes, fresh produce, and seafood.

Different products require different handling. What works for some might be worse for the others. In short, knowledge of the products in transit is the first step in achieving a problem-free last mile. 

One helpful information to look for is the product stability data. It tells about the characteristics of the products. But most importantly, it indicates the time that the product can be handled outside the required temperatures without losing efficacy. This is a report that has been published by the product manufacturers themselves. 

Distribution Model

Packaging methods can be divided into passive or active. Active requires a power source to work as opposed to passive containers that rely on cooling packs or none at all (for non-temperature sensitive products).

The active model is the use of freezers, reefers, or any other technologies that use a power source like electricity, battery, and solar. These devices are useful for temperature-specific products inside large stores, warehouses, manufacturing plants, etc as they ensure a stable cold life. Temperature excursions are rare because of constant power connection. 

On the other hand, passive containers make use of passive devices cooled with either water packs or phase change materials (PCMs). Water packs need to be frozen before use so it could maximize its cooling power while outside the cold chain. 

PCMs are water packs’ more advanced counterparts. It uses substances that absorb or release large amounts of heat. PCMs can cool on their own without the need for freezing. 

Distribution methods are chosen depending on the products. Some products are fine using containers with or without cooling capacities while others are required in active refrigeration for most of its shelf life.

Geographical Location

The geographical location is a big factor to consider.  Since a lot of products are time and temperature-sensitive, it helps to have a location that is conducive for such products

For example, delivering vaccines to cold places like the United States will reduce disruptions in the cold chain. Plus, the country has a well-developed road system, so vehicles can easily reach remote places. 

On the other hand, in places like Tunisia, north of Africa, ambient temperatures as high as 40°C can easily destroy the products. But what makes it even more difficult is that some communities in the country don’t have access to electricity and their roads are inaccessible by vehicles.  

Last mile in such countries, however, is still possible. Some containers and devices are designed to reach places like those in Tunisia. So it’s important to know the geographical location of the users first before planning the last mile strategy. 

Logistics Infrastructures

The logistics infrastructure is the totality of logistics facilities, institutions, and organizational structures. If they are comprehensive and efficient then the last mile will be worry-free, and quality products will be transported. But if they are insufficient, then it would take much more effort to deliver good results. 

Infrastructures should be well considered in the planning stage because it tells what kind of methods should be used and what kind of products are best suited for it. 

The logistics infrastructures are not equal across the world. Some are advanced but the rest needs improvement. The World Health Organization (WHO) stipulates guidelines and pharmaceutical regulations that apply to the status of logistics infrastructures. 

But to help better, the pharmaceutical companies should help those countries with minimal infrastructures by ensuring products get to the end of the cold chain. 

How to Improve Last Mile Delivery?

Last mile might be challenging. And one of the ways to overcome this challenge is through risk analysis. By analyzing possible risks, pharma companies already eliminate the main problems to encounter: temperature excursions. 

Disruption within the cold chain is the biggest hurdle of last mile transportation. But by planning ahead, by knowing at what part of the location will pose the risk of excursions, companies can then prepare for better packaging, cooling, and monitoring solutions. 

vaccine distribution

These three solutions will provide a good ground for risk preparation. A packaging that has advanced insulation technologies will offset the loss of heat enabling a longer cold life. And well-conditioned frozen packs or the use of cutting edge PCMs will provide a more stable cold environment for the products. Lastly, monitoring solutions such as temperature sensors and centralized servers ensures end-to-end visibility for the final mile shipping. 

Final Thoughts

Last mile delivery is the most important part of the supply chain. It involves the users or the recipients or the clients — the ones that the products are intended for. If the patients are handed with an ineffective product, the pharma companies will suffer from financial loss on top of a tainted reputation. 

Pharma companies, their logistics providers, and others involved in the supply chain should give as much importance to last mile as to the first leg of the distribution. Only then can they guarantee a successful last mile delivery, despite its most pressing challenges. 

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