How smart can cold chain packaging be? The global pharma industry is expected to blow up in the coming decades. With its rise comes another form of increasingly temperature-sensitive drugs and biological products.
The cold chain industry is feeling pressured as never before to develop more sophisticated packaging with the goal of keeping products fresh and stable. Spoilage of some cold chain products could mean the loss of someone’s life.
Cutting-edge cold chain technologies and software systems have already been developed. From traditional carriers filled with water-packs, to advanced insulated boxes using phase change materials (PCM), advances in the cold chain industry have come a long way.
More Sensitive Pharma Products
The cold chain has been the optimal choice for transporting most pharma products. The cold chain requires temperatures of 2℃ to 8℃ (36°F to 46°F) for most cool cargo such as fresh produce and chemicals.
Biologics have entered the world stage. Biologics are biologically-based pharmaceuticals, as opposed to chemical-based drugs and most medicines. Examples include vaccines, blood, blood components, cells, allergens, genes, tissues, and recombinant proteins. By 2025, more than 50% of newly approved drugs will be biologics and biosimilars.
Biologics demand different shipping requirements. While most cold chain products are fine between 2℃ to 8℃ (36°F to 46°F), some biologics must be stored in the following temperatures:
- Deep-freeze below -50°C (-58°F)
- Frozen -50°C to -20°C (-58°F to -4°F)
- Refrigerated 4°C to 8°C (39°F to 46°F)
- Room-temperature 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F)
Because of these variations in storage requirements, traditional packaging used for most vaccines and other cool cargos have proven inadequate and in need of major updates.
Traditional Cold Chain Packaging
Active refrigeration devices protect most cold chain products. The catch is that they require a consistent electrical connection. The products cannot stay fresh without electricity.
Heavy equipment refrigeration devices are prone to breakdowns, hence the need for expensive and difficult set-up and maintenance systems.
Active refrigerators and freezers are not used for last-mile delivery. Instead, they are placed inside warehouses, stores, cargos, reefers, ships, and planes.
Passive Cooling Devices
On the other hand, passive cooling technologies are helpful during last-mile transport. They can cool for days, even without electricity.
Examples are vaccine carriers, cold boxes, reefers, and cargo boxes. These passive cooling devices can transport products to resource-poor and unpassable locations. Health personnel can hand-carry them, as they are lighter than active containers.
Passive carriers do not make use of electricity. Each carrier is cooled with water-packs. Before use, water-packs need to be frozen to about -25℃ for 24 hours. Next is the process of conditioning, where the deep-frozen water-packs must be thawed to 0℃. Conditioned water-packs prevent freezing, a damaging scenario for most cool cargo, especially vaccines.
However useful, water-packs take up space that is supposed to be for vaccines. As a result, carriers containing water-packs are heavier and difficult to hand-carry. Although possible, the weight always comes as a challenge for handlers.
Conditioning takes time, too. During emergencies, conditioning is a hassle as water-packs take hours to achieve the desired temperature.
This process is also prone to errors. Many people have mistaken the conditioned water-packs for partially frozen water-packs. The former is perfect but the latter is dangerous for long-haul transport.
Since cold chain products are temperature-sensitive, placing temperature sensors makes sense. Temperature-sensing devices are a big help for cold chain logistics, as temperature deviation or excursions are bound to happen frequently.
Data loggers have been very useful for identifying temperatures in primary and secondary containers. Some devices also have an alarm that goes off when a temperature excursion happens.
Temp devices can be placed anywhere: in the vials; by the ampoules; near the water-packs; the bottom of the carriers; outside of the containers; inside the cargo—anywhere, depending on which part of the cargo requires constant temperature readings. The monitors also must work accurately.
Software Systems for Analysis Anywhere
Further development has led to the creation of software systems. Temp sensors may provide data to the handler or the health personnel, but they don’t pass data on to management, who are not directly involved in the handling process.
That’s where a centralized software system becomes handy. The system will gather all the data sent by the sensor devices from all packages across the world. From there, management can synthesize all the data on temp excursions, travel time, distance, spoilage, and waste. By doing so, management can mitigate risk, decrease travel time, reduce costs, and save all the information for marketing purposes.
The need for centralized software systems is increasing every year as most logistics companies employ these systems into their operations or outsource them from other experts.
GPS: Remote Tracking
Remote tracking is much needed on intercontinental logistics. Long-haul travel of cold chain products is riskier than that of short-distance travel.
As mentioned, most cold chain products are time and temperature-sensitive. The longer these products are in transit, the more they are exposed to dangers.
For example, accidental delays can cause vaccines to lose stability. Breakdowns of the cargo reefer or other refrigerating machines can spoil the products, producing to financial repercussions.
To prevent these misfortunes, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is there to help. It minimizes the risk and reduces loss. GPS is used for sending data and alerts over long distances. The use of satellites for forwarding signals allows data to be sent without internet or electrical connection.
Even during power interruption across continents, management back home, or the end recipient on the other side, can see what happens during transport, whether there were delays or spoilage, and thus can act as events happen or, at least, be informed about them.
Internet of Things for A Smart Logistics
While it sounds futuristic, many logistic companies already employ devices that monitor different cargo data: temperature; humidity; pollution; and volume.
The idea of the internet of things (IoT) for homes, cities, and cars is also applicable to the supply chain. It works best on several mobile vehicles, called fleet management systems, or connected fleet. IoT devices can monitor several vehicles at a time anywhere in the world.
IoT technologies can also intervene mid-transit and examine efficiencies of scale such as using different shipping lanes or different ways to palletize or bulk-ship smaller products.
The Advent of Smart Packaging
From passive containers, packaging has been getting smarter than ever. Smart packaging integrates advances in logistic packaging such as GPS, built-in temperature sensors, IoT devices, and cooling power, that can last longer than traditional packaging.
Peli BioThermal made this closer to reality when they developed a cutting-edge temperature-controlled packaging called Chronos Advance. It was given an Innovation Award by the Queen’s Award of Enterprise, the most prestigious business award in the UK.
Reportedly the most reliable and advanced in smart packaging, Chronos Advance has set an unprecedented example for innovation and development in the way we transport vital cold chain products.
Chronos Advance uses phase change materials (PCMs) to provide cooling and advanced insulation to offset any loss of heat. Because of these technologies, the containers can keep contents at a more precise and stable temperature for more than 120 hours.
This smart packaging incorporates precise temperature control, shipment tracking, and automated logistic feedback capabilities. It also provides greater stability than all other traditional packagings.
Phase change materials (PCM) are better alternatives than water-packs or gel packs. Water-packs are bulky and time-consuming. PCMs takes less space, weigh less, freezes on their own without electricity, and maintain the desired temperature. As a result, they reduce the risk of freezing.
Smart packaging such as Chronos Advance, double the payload efficiency, hence are more cost-effective for logistics services. Despite being expensive, fewer temperature excursions can offset the cost of damaged products, leading to cheaper operations overall.
Smart packages and other sophisticated software systems available in the market are helping logistics in many ways. In only a few years, we have produced more sophisticated containers for our sensitive cold chain products. Whatever may be developed next, the end goal remains the same: to reduce supply chain costs; improve performance; and deliver stable, fresh, and effective products.