A cold chain is a kind of supply chain that specializes in the storage, transport, and preservation of cargo that needs to be maintained at a specific temperature or within an acceptable temperature range.
Cold chains evolved due to a growing need for temperature-controlled logistics that could safely transport large quantities of food over great distances. Over time, however, cold chains have become an essential part of modern supply chain solutions to transport more sensitive or vital cargo over great distances through diverse climatic conditions.
Cold chains are vital in the storage and transport of the following products:
- Food & Beverages
- High-end foodstuffs
- Fruits & vegetables
- Meat & seafood
- Poultry & dairy
- Processed & ready-to-eat food
- Medical Goods
- Pharmaceuticals & healthcare products
- Biologics (tissue samples, live cultures, etc., meant for medical research)
- Temperature-sensitive Chemicals
- Volatile chemicals
- Other Temperature-sensitive Items
- Plants & flowers
- Synthetic products
- High-tech electronic/electrical components
- Photographic film
While an important part of cold chain logistics management is maintaining low temperatures to preserve perishable goods, not all cold chain cargo needs to be transported at sub-zero temperatures. In winter, for example, some fruits & vegetables need to be kept warm to preserve their texture or to ensure they last longer. Different cold chain cargo needs different temperature and ambient conditions to be maintained, which is why cold chain logistics is also known as temperature-controlled transport or cool chain logistics.
Temperature Standards for Cold Chain Logistics
Temperature-controlled transport is generally categorized into the following temperature ranges:
- (-28 °C to -30 °C) Deep freeze — seafood, meat exports.
- (-16 °C to -20 °C) Frozen — meat, certain types of produce.
- (2 °C to 4 °C) Chill — fruit & vegetables, fresh meat, and certain dairy products.
- (2 °C to 8 °C) Pharma — medicines, vaccines.
- (12 °C to 14 °C) Cool-chain — fresh produce, processed food, over-the-counter drugs.
Transporting goods at these temperature ranges would have been very difficult if not for the development of new techniques and technologies that help transporters achieve ideal temperature-controlled shipping conditions. Temperature-controlled transport options give modern businesses the flexibility and confidence to develop global supply chains for temperature-sensitive perishable goods.
Parts of a Cold Chain Logistics Operation
The cold chain has four main components, each of which must work flawlessly to ensure the safe transport and storage of cold chain products
- Temperature-controlled storage — specialized refrigerated facilities where cold chain cargo is stored until it’s shipped out to a distribution center or its destination.
- Temperature-controlled transport — customized insulated cold containers that help transport goods via airways, waterways, roadways, or railways.
- Trained and diligent personnel — who are familiar with the complexities of handling sensitive cold chain cargo.
- Efficient operational and management procedures — to minimize risk during day-to-day operations as well as contain it in case of unexpected incidents.
Managing cold chain warehousing and distribution is usually outsourced to third-party logistics operators (3PLs).
3PLs offer logistics services that can be customized according to specific requirements as well as scaled to suit changing needs. Experience and expertise in cold chain management allow 3PLs to operate at costs lower than their customers would manage for themselves.
Cold chains differ from regular supply chains in terms of:
- Cargo sensitivity — cold chain shipments are quite sensitive to thermal stress, and tolerance levels are often just a few degrees.
- Logistics hardware — which is far more customized and tailored to specific product needs.
- Packaging — is far more complex because it must insulate and contain sensitive products as well as volatile coolants.
- Costs — cold chains are far more expensive to manage, both in terms of operational overheads and in the event of a disruption.
- Cargo handling — needs to be done with special care, in temperature-controlled environments.
- Regulatory compliance — is far more stringent these days, and differs from region to region.
- Customs procedures — are far more complex, especially when sensitive shipments of food or medicines are involved, or when they’re packaged using refrigerants that may be strictly regulated in some regions of the world.
- Operational complexities — cold chain logistics operations are significantly harder to manage due to factors like the nature of shipments, the potential for hardware/coolant failures, stringent regulatory and handling requirements, and so on.
The greater range that globalization demands from today’s logistics services are pushing the limits of both the packaging and the integrity of the modern temperature-controlled supply chain. Given the potential for cold chain disruptions, the probability and cost of rejected shipments are higher than ever before. The concept of managing temperature-sensitive products has been around for a long time, but the technologies in play have evolved tremendously over the past few decades.
Author: Danish Mairaj, CISCOM, PMP