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Protect Your Supply Chain Like You Protect Your Home: Cold Chain ‘Smoke Alarms’

By Contributing Author | 11/01/2017 | 10:05 AM

By Rob Stevens, Tive

Did you know that smoke alarms have only been in use since the late 1960s? Imagine living in a world where you go to bed every night with no system to alert you to a fire. It may sound crazy, but if you are shipping your temperature-sensitive products using only temperature loggers, you’re still living in the Eisenhower era.

Temperature-Sensitive Shipments Need “Smoke Alarms”

 Many products, like drugs, need to be transported in narrow temperature bands. If the product experiences temperatures outside that band for more than a set period of time, it can lose effectiveness or even become dangerous. Since the early 1990s companies have used simple data loggers to capture temperature data during the journey. At the end of the trip, the logger data is downloaded and examined to determine whether a temperature excursion has occurred. If it has, the manufacturer has to decide what to do with the product, and is often forced to dispose of goods that are no longer safe to sell. 

If a temperature excursion is like a fire, what role does a logger play? The closest analogy would be the insurance adjuster who arrives after the fire has occurred and helps the homeowner understand what is salvageable from the fire. This is a valuable service, but if your house has burned down, you probably wish you had something more. You wish you had a smoke alarm to alert you as soon as something went wrong so you can react before the damage is done.

Real-time trackers can do for supply chains what smoke alarms do for house fires. A cellular-connected tracker that travels with the goods reacts in real time to temperature excursions or other damage. In the past these trackers were too expensive to use widely and their batteries too limited to last the duration of a normal shipment, but falling hardware costs and improved power consumption have enabled a new generation of trackers that can last for months and are economical to attach to shipments. These trackers constantly monitor conditions such as temperature, shock, humidity, and other factors, and generate an immediate alert when a problem occurs.

A Smoke Alarm in Action

Here’s a real-life example of a “smoke alarm” in action: a European pharmaceutical company ships products from production sites in Europe to distribution centers in North America via ocean freight. Shipments require a temperature controlled environment between 15 and 25 degrees C, so the company uses a real-time tracker with each shipment. Earlier this year the customer shipped the first delivery of a new product to North America. Because this was a new product launch, any delay in getting product to market would result in meaningful lost revenue. On the day the product departed, the customer checked the status of the shipment via the tracker’s cloud-hosted software and found that the refrigerated container temperature was set to 6 degrees C, not 20 C. 

The customer immediately called the shipping company and had them set the container to the correct temperature, which they confirmed through their inventory monitoring system. They also ordered replacement product in case the shipment proved to be compromised.

Because of their “smoke alarm,” the pharmaceutical company avoided the cost and delay of retesting six products, as well as the lost revenue and market impact of having two new products late to market (in this case, revenues of up to $1.5 million).

Going Beyond the Smoke Alarm to Fire Prevention 

But let’s stretch this metaphor a bit further -- when it comes to house fires, you don’t just want to know if there’s a fire. What you really want is to prevent fires in the first place. This means understanding and preventing the conditions that are likely to cause a fire. This is the role of the fire inspector, who develops a set of rules that reduce the likelihood of a fire. 

How can shippers “prevent fires”? For one thing, they can use appropriately-certified shippers and containers to reduce the chances of a temperature excursion. But, like a fire inspector, they can go beyond passive measures to use data to identify the conditions that tend to lead to problems. This is where terms like “IoT” (Internet of Things) and “Big Data” come in. Using internet-enabled sensors (IoT) to gather data on temperature excursions for all shipments, it’s possible to build a very large database of shipments, including variables like carrier, mode, time of day, location, humidity, and so on. This “big data” can then be used to detect trends and warning signs that a temperature excursion is imminent. These warning signs can be used to change operations and reduce the risk of a temperature excursion.

Only You Can Prevent Temperature Excursions

This may all sound a little like science fiction, but it’s happening today. Internet-connected sensors are traveling the world by train, ship, plane, and truck, feeding data back to central servers and generating alerts. Companies are beginning to use the resulting data to build predictive models that will enable them to improve operations and reduce damages of all sorts.

More and more companies are sleeping safely at night, knowing that if the worst happens and a “fire” breaks out, they will have the warning they need to respond before it’s too late.

If your company one of them?



Rob Stevens is Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer at
Tive, provider of sensor-driven tracking solutions to deliver full visibility into products as they move through the supply chain.





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