Ask the Experts: What Technologies Should Cold Chains Be Using to Monitor and Preserve Temperature-Sensitive Inventory While in Storage and Transit?

According to these two experts, the imbalance between supply and demand is compelling more aggressive efforts to mitigate preventable inventory losses.

Trucks driving on a highway
by Your Edge Blog Team
June 10, 2021

If you are having trouble finding fresh flower arrangements, chicken wings, and even some prescription drugs, you’re not alone. These are among the many items still in short supply due to pandemic-inflicted production delays and/or unusually high demand. They are also among the many items cold chain stakeholders are working diligently to preserve when they do have inventory on hand.

In fact, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in technology spending among those responsible for producing, storing, and distributing temperature-sensitive products since COVID-19 emerged. Between the current shortages and the 2020 storage overstocks of beef and dairy when restaurants suddenly closed and orders were cancelled, cold chains have had to simultaneously accelerate throughput, extend shelf life and reduce waste. Any one of these efforts alone is a heavy lift from a logistics perspective. In fact, it’s dizzying to think about the resources required to keep tabs on the billions of items exchanging hands each day across the globe. It’s not easy to keep an eye on static inventory, either. Stock being held in refrigerators and freezers at warehouses, distribution centers, retail stores and hospitals need frequent quality control inspection, as a single temperature excursion can render them inconsumable.

So, we sat down with our cold chain experts, Andre Luecht, the global vertical practice lead for Transport and Logistics at Zebra Technologies, and Mike Montana, a Senior Business Development Manager for Temptime, which is now part of Zebra, to find out just how the temperature of cold chain products gets tracked through each touchpoint and what can be done to create more visibility into temperature-related quality for consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. Andre has spent the last 25+ years in the supply chain, transport, and logistics field, both as a provider of technologies and services and as a customer/end user. And Mike has spent nearly two decades helping biotech, pharmaceutical and medical device companies improve manufacturing and supply chain process controls. 

Your Edge Blog Team: For months we have seen workers loading COVID-19 vaccines into coolers with dry ice and ultracold trucks parading across our cities via headline news channels. And, in the process, we’ve learned a lot about the effort that goes into delivering other perishable or temperature-sensitive items to stores and homes, including fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken, dairy and cosmetics. Now that consumers’ interest in cold chain logistics has been piqued, have you found supply chain organizations under more pressure to become transparent about their inventory handling and storage processes?

Andre: I do think there’s been a call from consumers for more information. Or perhaps consumers are just proactively investigating cold chain practices now that they know what information to look for and the questions to ask. Before last year, I doubt many of us realized how intense the distribution process is for something like makeup or the muffin we get at the local coffee chain. And, yes, we know manufacturers, warehouse operators, distributors, transporters and others are having to share more information about their quality control standards – specifically the equipment and processes used to preserve the quality of temperature-sensitive goods. That’s not a bad thing, though. They have always been held accountable for the quality of goods they sell or distribute by commercial customers, such as retailers or hospitals. Now, the end user is paying more attention.

Your Edge Blog Team: Are you seeing technology investments heat up in the cold chain to be able to streamline the distribution of information to stakeholders or improve visibility and accountability across operations?

Andre: Most certainly. Of course, the most publicized investments are those tied to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort. There has been a lot of coverage about vaccine vial monitors that can be used to confirm temperature stability was maintained from the first mile through the last. And we’ve seen a great deal of discussion about how electronic data loggers can be affixed to a pallet or installed inside a cooler or freezer to monitor temperature variations at a batch level.

However, we are seeing those responsible for other perishable items commit just as much effort to preserving their inventory, whether over or under-stocked. No one wants to have to throw away prescription drugs, food, beverages, flowers or even cosmetic items.

Your Edge Blog Team: Can you walk us through how temperature tracking works?

Mike: It varies a bit depending on the type of goods being distributed and the required features or complexity of the temperature sensors selected. There are different temperature indicators on the market today, ranging from simple chemical-based sensors to passive USB monitoring devices to more advanced Bluetooth-enabled ones.

But, in essence, a temperature indicator for shipping is either attached to a product or pallet – or perhaps installed in a truck, train or shipping container – to help someone easily confirm the performance of the cold chain. If the sensor detects a variation in temperature from what was programmed in as acceptable, it will alert the next person to handle the temperature indicator or potentially someone monitoring the shipment from a distance. Or there may be a self-adhesive, chemical-based indicator attached to the packaging of each item, like a vaccine vial monitor, that allows for a fast visual confirmation of temperature stability.

Your Edge Blog Team: A box doesn’t have to be opened or a pallet broken down to read the temperature monitor or extract sensor data?

Mike: With chemical-based sensors, as well as many of the data loggers in use today, someone does have to open the shipment and/or remove the data logger before the data is accessible. However, recent advancements in data logger technologies have resulted in the addition of Bluetooth® and near field communication (NFC) connectivity. In turn, cold chains gain what I would describe as modern-day x-ray vision. They can see what's happening within a package without needing to open the box, making it very convenient to track temperature variations in near-real time.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is the data accessible to multiple stakeholders throughout all phases of the supply chain?

Mike: It is. Data from these wireless-enabled data loggers are typically sent to the cloud. The inventory or quality control manager can then sign into their private portal to view the data for an entire shipment.

However, chemical-based sensors don’t transmit data. They require a visual review by the people handling the product.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, inclusion of the temperature sensors starts at the very beginning?

Mike: Yes. In most cases, the manufacturer will hand the product off to a qualified cold chain third-party logistics company (3PL), which will take responsibility of maintaining the temperature in storage and in transit to its next destination.

Your Edge Blog Team: How does the manufacturer decide which type of sensor to use?

Mike: There are many factors that the manufacturer must consider when determining what type of sensor to use. Some of these include the product value, the stability profile of the product being shipped, the length and duration of the journey, and the requirement for data at the reception point. All of these will help guide whether a chemical sensor or data logger is most appropriate.

Your Edge Blog Team: What other technologies can be leveraged throughout the cold chain to track and trace inventory, either from a quality or location perspective?

Andre: There are several technologies critical to executing the cold chain in today’s fast-paced world. You can see in this infographic how many different Zebra technologies alone are used in the distribution of temperature-sensitive vaccines.

The ones most important to note are:

  • radio frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth® Low Energy and other locationing solutions, which are a primary method for the track and trace of items as they move in, out, and through facilities.
  • fixed industrial scanners that can help track the status of items moving down an assembly line or warehouse conveyor belt during production and packing via automated barcode scans.
  • machine vision solutions that can automatically identify product or labeling defects and validate quality as items move down the production or inspection line.
  • printers capable of generating the specialized RFID tags or barcoded labels needed to track and trace items.
  • mobile computers that can push detailed instructions to workers about the best next step to take in every workflow. (Efficiency is key to cold chain logistics given the time and temperature sensitivity of goods.)
  • handheld barcode scanners that can be used to verify which items have been put away, picked and/or packed as part of a more focused inventory count, stock management or fulfillment effort.

There are also several intelligence-based software solutions that can fuse data from multiple sensors to automatically and proactively make decisions about how to manage inventory without much human intervention needed, if any. For example, the data captured via temperature sensors, location beacons and RFID at the time goods were unloaded from the trailer, put in inbound staging, released from staging and taken to cold storage can be aggregated and compared using a prescriptive analytics solution. Should the temperature drop at any point in time, the inventory managers can identify the trouble area, time frame, etc. to rectify the root issue and prevent a reoccurrence. They also use the data to determine the potential impact of the temperature variation on product quality. It may have been a minor dip, and quality inspectors might conclude the shipment is still viable. Or they may realize the temperature excursion was long enough to potentially impact quality or efficacy. If that’s the case, they may reject the order or recommend disposal so those items never make it into consumers’ hands. No one wants to have to issue a recall.

Intelligent workforce management and task management software can then be used to reassign or direct labor to address identified issues in a highly effective manner.

Your Edge Blog Team: It sounds like it is quite easy to monitor and maintain the temperature of cold chain items if you have the right technologies in place then. Do you agree?

Andre: With the right technologies, absolutely. But what we’re realizing is that many cold chains are still lacking those technologies, and that’s posing a huge risk to the reliability and resilience of cold chains.

Your Edge Blog Team: How so?

Mike: Product packaging can be qualified before a shipment leaves the plant or warehouse. But it’s impossible to qualify a package and a transit process or cycle without the right technologies in place gathering real-time insights. For example, if a package is shipped from the manufacturer on the west coast of the country to a distributor on the east coast, it may encounter all kinds of different weather patterns, including snowstorms or even a tornado that could delay a shipment longer then the qualification has allowed. If a box qualification is done in an environmental chamber for 24 hours, but the product is held up due to a snowstorm for 48 hours, the product will be placed in quarantine.

Additional steps in the process will follow, further delaying the availability of the product to the market. Once a verification of the environmental temperature experienced has been reviewed, the product may be released for use, sent back to the manufacturer, or safely disposed. The challenge is that no two transit events are ever the same and thus cannot be repeated consistently.  That’s why temperature indicators for shipping have been designed to provide data about what happens to product environments throughout transit and allow data-driven decision making.  

Andre: Besides the countless numbers of weather calamities that could impact the transit path and duration of any given shipment, we must also worry about highway or maritime traffic. A single accident or canal closure could significantly delay shipments. As we learned in the past year, things like global pandemics can also interrupt supply chains in a tremendous way and be extremely costly to both the manufacturer and the consumer. So, we also have to monitor and make decisions about shipping activity in the context of other factors outside people’s control.

That’s why technology solutions such as Zebra SmartPack™, prescriptive analytics, and the Fourkites platform that Zebra Ventures has invested in are also becoming highly valuable to the cold chain. They provide a heightened level of intelligence about logistics operations and can help all parties adapt. For example, the Fourkites solution offers end-to-end, real-time visibility of supply chains, so you can see the real-time status for shipments in transit and in the yard with predictive ETAs. If it reports the delayed arrival of an empty truck, loading dock managers can turn to an intelligent workforce management solution to determine how best to reallocate labor. They may have four workers they can send to help load or unload another temperature-sensitive shipment to minimize exposure to warmer (or colder) temperatures. Or they can coach their teams on how to load a container faster to avoid having to discard loaded pallets sitting on a hot tarmac. In another scenario, the system may be able to reconcile weather reports with anticipated transit routes to recommend a delayed departure. Yes, the shipment may be late, but it’s better to be late than have to toss everything upon arrival because it was temperature compromised after being stuck on the highway two days.

Your Edge Blog Team: Do you find items flowing through commercial resellers, public sector agencies or healthcare providers being more closely scrutinized from a quality perspective and, thus, prompting more urgent investments in these types of technologies? Or do companies that sell direct to consumers value the visibility and accountability just as much?

Mike: I can confirm that pharmaceutical manufacturers spend an enormous amount of effort and resources to make sure their product is maintained at the right temperature throughout the shipment process. They will often use dedicated trucks and or active refrigeration cargo containers on air carriers to move inventory from the production facility to the first distribution point. In some cases, they use sophisticated packaging that consists of either expanded polystyrene (EPS), polyurethane or some other biodegradable insulation. These boxes go through a series of tests in an environmental chamber, as well as real-time testing in the field, to verify their cold tolerance and temperature stability capabilities. Wholesalers, distributors and hospitals want to see that every precaution is being taken to avert a loss while in route.

They will also add gel packs and a chemical-based sensor or electronic data logger (EDL) into the package as part of the shipping process. This helps product handlers, including pharmacists, clinicians and even the end customer, confirm that the medication stayed at the right temperature from the moment it was produced to the moment it was used.

Your Edge Blog Team: What about food producers, flower harvesters or even cosmetic manufacturers? Do they take this much care to maintain the temperature stability of their products? Is there even as much temperature sensitivity?

Andre: Food suppliers do spend a lot of time figuring out their packaging options to keep their high margin items from going bad, especially considering the time and distance traveled during distribution these days. For example, they want to keep fresh fish cold, but they may not want it to freeze. Or they want to ensure their flash frozen foods don’t start to thaw. Even strawberries require special care, as humidity can adversely affect their quality and make them turn quickly. So, food producers will typically include a temperature sensor in the packaging based on their distributors’ requirements and industry regulations. This allows the fish or strawberries to be monitored from the moment they leave the plant until they get to their destination. They know every effort has been taken to ensure the highest quality item is being delivered to their customers – their brand name is associated with top quality food.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is this level of diligence required for other types of temperature-controlled items that may be stable at room temperature but negatively impacted by high heat?

Mike: In the pharmaceutical space, we’re actually seeing more attention being given to temperature stability for these types of items. Many products that can be shipped at room temperature still need to be held between 15 degrees and 25 degrees Celsius for the entire duration of transport. This is considered “controlled room temperature” (CRT). Like refrigerated products, if these CRT products exceed their recommended temperature ranges, the items could be rendered unviable and need to be thrown away.

Andre: Even more broadly, there has been significant focus by manufacturers and regulating bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to assure controlled room temperature products are being handled with the same type of care commonly seen with cold chain medications. Like refrigerated products, similar packaging and temperature monitoring protocols are being implemented to assure CRT products maintain their quality and efficacy as they move throughout the supply chain.

Your Edge Blog Team: How accurate are the technologies used to capture temperature exposure? Can consumers trust the data generated by the solutions you just mentioned?

Mike: People need to be confident that what they’re putting in or on their bodies is of the highest quality, and they want assurance the foods and medications they receive have been stored and transported at the right temperature. So, we go to great lengths to ensure these technologies are accurate when developing and testing them, and there is a lot of regulatory oversight.

We also work with manufacturers, distributors and even the final suppliers – such as pharmacies and retailers – to ensure temperature sensors are visible in the packaging the consumer receives it, especially if sent in the mail. There is no way to know if there was a breach in temperature unless you have a chemical-based sensor or data logger in the package, so part of this effort is to provide peace of mind to that consumer that the package arrived in the right condition.

At the same time, if the manufacturer neglects to use a chemical-based sensor or data logger, it could put consumers in danger. If the product arrives outside of the manufacturer’s specified storage temperature range, there is a risk of reduced efficacy or, in some cases, an increased risk of toxicity. Though the temperature indicating device can’t be used to definitively determine a product’s safety or efficacy, it can prompt the consumer to pick up the phone and call someone who can advise on what to do if there is a verified temperature excursion. In many cases, the pharmacy or retailer will decide to send a replacement to err on the side of caution and just ask the consumer to dispose of the original product.

Your Edge Blog Team: Who incurs the cost of replacement in these cases?

Mike: If it’s a medication, usually the pharmacy, healthcare provider, insurance company and/or manufacturer. If it’s a food item, usually the food producer or reseller. However, the cost can be justified because the risk of consuming or using a temperature compromised product is significantly reduced. The use of a temperature sensor can reduce the number of replacement requests from consumers who suspect the product may have been exposed to either too warm or too cold temperatures. The temperature sensor allows them to know for sure if it was within the allowed temperature range.

Your Edge Blog Team: Have you run a cost-benefit analysis for all the cold chain technologies discussed? Are there some that will deliver a faster return on investment than others?

Andre: I could write an entire post on the total cost and benefits of ownership (TCO/TBO) for each of these technologies. The specific qualitative and quantitative costs and benefits will be influenced by several factors. So, cold chain organizations really need to consult with a trusted solution provider on their specific challenges and goals to get a personalized solution recommendation and TCO/TBO.

Your Edge Blog Team: What can participants in the cold chain do to reduce the maintenance expense of these technology devices? Obviously, some are meant for one-time use, such as the chemical-based sensors. But what about the other technologies used for cold chain logistics?

Andre: My biggest advice is to ensure you’re choosing hardware that’s purpose built for the cold chain, possibly attached to re-usable transport packaging like totes or trays. It must be able to withstand freezing temps or condensation without malfunctioning. You would be surprised at how easily internal electronics can rust out in damp environments because they don’t have heating elements to dry up humidity as they move between cold storage and the warmer temperatures of the warehouse, plant or yard. Also be sure you’re following the proper handling instructions provided by the technology manufacturer.

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Editor’s Note:

Check out this cold chain brochure to learn more about the types of technology solutions available to help track and monitor your valuable, temperature-sensitive goods with a high rate of accuracy.

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Your Edge Blog Team
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