There is probably a higher level of public awareness about how the logistics industry works and its technology than ever before. Who hasn’t had at least a passing interest in how a nation plans to get over 300 million doses of a vaccine distributed in a manner of a few months?
The mass adoption of eCommerce by a much broader swathe of consumers last year has also lead to them being much better informed about the technologies being employed in the industry. But one segment of the industry that doesn’t see the spotlight as much is the cold chain - where all the cold and frozen products are made, moved, and stored.
How Sophisticated is the Cold Chain?
“Cold chain” or “temperature-controlled” shipping refers to the entire process of protecting, transporting, and storing cold and frozen products, whether they be food or pharmaceuticals. The process uses cooling systems to maintain a steady temperature and humidity level at all times.
In the pharma sector, cold chain processes must adhere to standards enforced by regulatory bodies so that the products won’t negatively impact the quality, safety, or efficacy of the drugs. One of the benefits of cold chain advances in this space is that temperature-controlled drugs, like vaccines, can be transported to any country in the world.
The cold chain has become more sophisticated over the past several years to keep pace with a variety of factors, including the development of new drugs, growth in the frozen food sector, and changes in consumer dietary and delivery preferences.
According to the Food Marketing Institute, the cold food sector alone is expected to grow to $100 billion by 2022, a staggering 426% growth rate in just three years.
On the pharma side, Pharmaceutical Drugs predicted that cold chain drugs would grow by an estimated 59% over six years, but this was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Those figures are surely much higher given the current situation.
Beginning last fall, we began hearing about how cold the Pfizer COVID vaccine needs to be kept through transport and storage. How cold? According to the drug’s maker, anywhere between -70°F to -80°F across the supply chain. Considering most U.S. hospitals and small towns don’t have freezers capable of maintaining these temperatures, the distribution presented a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
Recent Innovations in the Cold Chain
Whether it’s a vaccine or some other life-sustaining medicine that must be kept at a certain temperature or the food we put on the table, the cold chain is a vital component in the system that protects shipments from harm and delivers what is promised to the end-user. Companies have unveiled several innovations recently in this space.
Automation at the Coldest Temps
It can be tough to find workers willing to work day after day in cold environments. We’re talking about factory or warehouse work at -20°F. Clearly, automation is the best solution, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.
Automation in the cold chain is costly to implement, but the payoffs in labor, space, and energy savings are significant. Preferred Freezer Services opened the largest automated frozen food warehouse in North America in 2018. The company reports that an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) saves up to 80% in labor, up to 60% in space, and up to 40% in energy costs.
Product Flow in Cold Chain Facilities
Even if you achieve automation in your cold chain facility, you will likely need employees on staff. This is particularly the case if you are switching more of your business to eCommerce channels.
Individual customers and some grocery outlets no longer want or need full pallet loads of a product, often necessitating the need to have people in the supply chain. This frequently happens with the sale of private-label goods, which may be managed by the case instead of the pallet. There is also a growing market for grocery foods handled by meal kit companies like Blue Apron and direct-to-consumer purchases.
Combined, these sound like logistical nightmares, but a few companies are innovating to address the ongoing challenges. Suppliers like Yale, Raymond, UniCarriers Americas, Crown, and Hyster have all recently launched trucks for use in freezer and cold storage environments.
Raymond, like our own partner, Newcastle Systems has been getting into the lithium-ion battery business but specifically for cold chain environments. Over a full shift, these batteries have higher performance than lead-acid and a total cost of ownership over two to three years that is 25% less.
Information Tracking of Cold Products
In today’s increasingly connected, fast-paced, and customer-focused world, data is everything. But with regulations like the DSCSA and FSMA, data is no longer something that’s nice to have. It’s become a necessity.
According to one Honeywell survey, 27% of pharma tracking in 2017 was still on paper. As of last year, that number had dropped to less than 10%. The race isn’t just to comply with looming regulatory deadlines but also to gain increased visibility in the supply chain and boost consumer safety and trust.
The primary way that companies are innovating in this space is through different warehouse management systems (WMS).
For example, San Francisco-based Good Eggs is an online grocery delivery service that includes meal kits and produce. About 40% of its warehouse is temperature-controlled, including both freezer and refrigerator. Its WMS system scans products to store them in the proper temperature zones, tracks inventory against expiration dates, and reduces product spoilage.
Not only do these systems improve operations for the suppliers, but some companies are also sharing data with customers, creating the highest level of visibility in the cold chain.
On the pharma side, Softbox has been working with leading telecommunications and pharmaceutical organizations to create the highest level of visibility in the cold chain using InternetofThings and drone technology. Softbox also happens to be the company that created temporary storage boxes cooled by dry ice for the Pfizer vaccine.
What the Future of the Cold Chain Has in Store
In the past several years, we’ve witnessed participants in the food and pharmaceutical industries make significant improvements in the way they manufacture, transport, and store cold and frozen products. Part of this was necessitated by concerns about safety as increasing numbers of people were forced to stay and dine at home. And let’s not forget the extreme storage requirements of the Pfizer vaccine.
With 31% of U.S. households now using an online grocery pick-up or delivery service combined with the demand for new drugs dispersed to a wider-ranging population, we can expect to see even more innovation in cold chain logistics. According to one forecast, this market is projected to grow about 17.9% annually through 2026. Some of the areas likely to experience additional innovation include those involving data tracking, custom packaging solutions, and multi-segmented refrigerated transportation.
Whether your business has made enough of these improvements in the past year or is just getting started, there are more solutions available than ever that can help you deliver a better customer experience and improve your business results.