The biggest and most obvious risk to cold chain operations is temperature excursion, which leads to temperature-controlled transport’s biggest problem – product spoilage.
Processes, participants, external factors, poor management of resources, limited financial capacity, and shipment security — these are some of the weakest links in cold chain operations that inevitably result in temperature excursions, or worse.
The easiest way to identify (and subsequently reduce) risk is to spot problems before they have a chance to snowball.
That’s where tracking technologies come in.
Temperature tracking is the first step toward effective cold chain management. To minimize the chances of temperature spikes in transit, transporters used simple measures like risk assessment for standard routes to identify their safest option, using dedicated vehicles, using things like phase change gel bricks to identify excursions, or doubling up on packaging and active cooling to secure their shipments.
Newer cold chain technologies have given logistics players more options to track and manage their cold chain operations though.
Some of the most common and effective temperature-tracking solutions for cold chains include:
- Infrared Thermometers. Allows a user to scan shipments from a distance and measure surface temperature.
- Wired Digital Thermometers. Sensors are placed in the cold storage area and hooked up to a monitor/logging device through wires. Usually used to monitor ‘deep freeze’ or ‘frozen’ shipments, where conventional temperature loggers can’t survive due to the extreme cold.
- Temperature Data Loggers. By far the most popular cold chain temperature tracking solution today, temperature data loggers are usually part of the cold chain shipment in transit. Temperature data loggers are commonly classified into the following types:
- Passive Temperature Loggers. Battery-powered devices simply log temperature data at set intervals, which can be downloaded for analysis through USB or other connectivity options.
- Wireless Temperature Loggers. RFID or Bluetooth temperature data sensors (also known as beacons) are similar to passive temperature data loggers. Their data can be accessed wirelessly, making it easier to use in large-scale operations.
While the data gathered by temperature loggers helps to detect temperature excursions and spoilage more reliably (perhaps even make improvements to overall efficiencies) they can’t really help reduce product spoilage. That’s because most logger reports are generated well after the temperature excursion occurs, which means there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Not all cold chain products spoil as soon as they cross their ideal storage temperature. Rather, it’s the ‘degree’ and ‘frequency’ of changes in temperature that determine whether they spoil. Although a temperature spike may not necessarily indicate spoilage, stringent norms for the secure transportation of food and medical products dictate that the entire consignment be discarded.
To reduce such unnecessary wastage in cold chain shipments, industry players are shifting to a different system — known as Mean Kinetic Temperature (MKT) — to better gauge the impact of inevitable temperature excursions in cold chain logistics on the health of their shipments.
Are Cold Chain Drugs Adequately Inspected to Prevent Spoilage?
Technology has come a long way when it comes to tracking and tracing the cold chain, but it is still in the process of getting where it needs to be when it comes to monitoring the cold chain, especially when dealing with the pharmaceutical cold chain. More often than not, cold chain drugs get spoiled or damaged during transit, or at a facility for the lack of adequate inspection. In absence of optimal solutions to
problems like temperature excursions, cross-contamination, and delays in delivery causing spoilage, the pharmaceutical cold chain suffers more than it can handle.
Although we have temperature loggers, and BLE beacons to take care of a lot of things going on in cold chains, what is actually required to perfect cold chain monitoring is — managing the MKT, real-time updates, actionable information about the supply chain, and predictive analytics to make the best use of the available data.
To overcome these limitations, transporters need more timely updates on the state of their shipments. This led to the development of newer ‘active’ temperature data loggers. Like passive and wireless loggers, they record temperature data. What sets them apart is the ability to connect to a communication network (like GSM or Wi-Fi) which allows them to transmit live data as well as instant alerts in case of
temperature excursions. The ability to register temperature excursions in real time was a game-changer for risk management in cold chain operations. Temperature-Controlled logistics management switched from reactive to proactive, and transporters began to explore the advantages of data-driven decision-making.
The constant drive to improve efficiency (and cost-efficiency) pushed cold chain management toward solutions that leverage the advantages of constantly connected and communicating devices. Cold chain management, whether it realizes it or not, has taken its first definitive steps into the IoT age.
The need for more data to make better decisions has spurred further improvements to cold chain monitoring solutions, some of which include:
- Constant communication for real-time temperature updates and alerts.
- Additional data such as shipment location, its condition, and relevant external feeds like weather and local traffic conditions.
- Smaller, portable, energy-efficient monitoring devices that can be used for multi-modal shipments and can be managed remotely.
- Convenient reports, real-time dashboards, and better contextual information make cold chain monitoring and management easier.
- Cloud-based real-time predictive analytics to identify risk as well as opportunities to improve efficiency.
- Real-time contingency and crisis management that takes full advantage of live cold chain monitoring, staying one step ahead of any disruptions.
Cold chain risk management strategies are being upgraded to take advantage of these developments, leveraging the power of automation, machine learning, and predictive insights that such systems allow for. The hybrid combination of robust monitoring devices, constant connectivity, and analytics that enable data-driven improvements to cold chain logistics operations represents the pinnacle of cold chain monitoring and management systems.
Real-time intelligence is vital to monitor a temperature-controlled shipment’s condition, and route/carrier performance, as well as to stay one step ahead of the cold chain risks that could disrupt operations. Understanding and optimizing cold chain performance is often constrained by a lack of effective visibility. While it’s possible to piece together a reasonably complete picture of cold chain performance through periodic reports, historical data analysis, or ad-hoc evaluations, you need systems in place that provide constant insight into cold chain performance and day-to-day operations.
The easiest and best solution to achieve that is through hybrid IoT cold chain monitoring systems that combine the best of two worlds – physical machines gathering real-time data that are streamed to virtual machines in order to generate real-time predictive analytics.
An ideal real-time cold chain monitoring solution should be set up as follows:
- Deploy sensors/monitoring devices to gather live temperature data.
- Ensure the devices also gather other contextually important data like location and condition.
- Monitor at the package level to reduce the risk of missing hotspots in cold chain storage or transport.
- Ensure constant connectivity to guarantee real-time temperature excursion or anomaly alerts.
- Fine-tune the data analytics and predictive algorithms, ensuring your smart system are firing on all cylinders.
- Make sure the reports, alerts, and overall system are easy to use for relevant stakeholders.
- Ensure there are contingencies and measures for rapid response in place to capitalize on predictive or real-time alerts.
- Make sure your monitoring hardware is reusable and easy to recover to maximize ROI.
- Make sure the monitoring system is pay-per-use or pay-as-you-go; ensure it’s scalable when required but flexible enough to accommodate fluctuating budgets.
Author: Danish Mairaj, CISCOM, PMP