Now more than ever, ensuring the safety, quality, and timely delivery of pharmaceutical products to their final destination is a challenging and costly endeavor. With the tight regulation of supply chain systems, and the U.S. pharmaceutical market expected to grow to a value of $550 billion by 2020, pharmaceutical companies have little room for error when it comes to balancing careful cargo monitoring with reasonable cost output.
There’s no question that these companies face a number of hurdles in maintaining and tracking both the quality and the location of their cargo as it moves through the supply chain. From route and transition connectivity to en-route product quality, time-sensitive operations to environmentally-sensitive assets, real-time monitoring of cargo along the entire supply chain is more critical than ever. Fortunately, new technologies are providing solutions for those pharmaceutical providers ready to turn their supply chain problems into drivers of business success.
The Complexities of Temperature and Timekeeping
Monitoring cargo as it transitions between land, sea, and air routes is no easy feat, but ensuring that necessary conditions are maintained is a crucial part of transportation. Moving pharmaceutical products between the warehouse, suppliers, customers, and end users requires close attention to the environment in which it is being transported.
Factors such as temperature, light, tilt, and shock can all potentially damage cargo. For example, allowing drugs such as insulin to freeze and then thaw can compromise their integrity, and direct sunlight can cause irreversible damage. Considering the fact that half of all FDA drug approvals in 2017 were cold chain products, which means their transition through the supply chain requires careful temperature management, many of the drugs being transported require constant attention. In addition to this, the industry is moving towards biopharmaceutical products, such as personalized medicines and medications with high value and low volume, which have even more specific transportation needs.
So, we shouldn’t assume that keeping all drugs cold is a one-size-fits-all solution. There are new drugs on the market, including treatments for rare diseases that must be kept at body temperature.
In addition to their own strict temperature requirements, these drugs can also have shorter lifespans. They often require a different approach altogether than cold chain products, as they can’t endure the temperature spikes that may come in ambient containers. As pharmaceuticals continue to grow ever more diverse and complex, supply chain technologies must advance at the same rate to ensure quality is kept to standard.
Planning the transport of pharmaceutical goods from courier to courier also presents issues in terms of time-sensitive operations, as many products need to reach their destination within a specific timeframe to uphold their assured quality. Transitioning from different routes and modes of transport can cause delays, especially when the owner of the assets lacks real-time updates of the cargo’s location and must instead rely on shipping reports or out-of-date tracking solutions. The downside to this scenario is clear – if something goes wrong or a shipment is delayed, there is no way to immediately act accordingly.
There are available solutions to these cargo monitoring issues, but they are largely unable to provide pharmaceutical companies with the peace of mind that their goods are being kept in top condition from the beginning to the end of their journey. For example, some old sensors provide minimum visibility of goods but aren’t equipped to provide enough insight into the quality of the cargo as it passes through the supply chain. If a product were to arrive already damaged, manufacturers would only find out as a result of negative customer feedback – far too late for meaningful action.
More recently developed sensors are leaner and focus on real-time supply chain, yet they still lack effective tracking at the unit level.
With current real-time monitoring sensors, many pharmaceutical companies aren’t able to track the quality of the individual item. In the event of a problem that cannot be addressed while the cargo is en route, such as temperature fluctuations or light exposure, the whole order must be destroyed.
This is a scenario that can be entirely avoided with the use of item level sensors as part of a fully integrated serialization and real-time tracking solution. When the same situations occur – changing temperatures or inadvertent light exposure – pallets equipped with item-level sensors enable companies to track those products that have been negatively affected and those that have not. This type of monitoring drives greater efficiency, profitability, and ROI for pharmaceutical companies.
Handling and Preventing Instances of Theft
Theft of pharmaceutical products is not a new phenomenon. However, with the increase in valuation of many drugs over recent years comes a fresh need for companies to ensure that their cargo arrives safe and secure. Increasing health insurance prices coupled with a thriving black market also contributes to pharmaceutical theft, which can be hugely profitable for thieves. This is particularly urgent for sea cargo, which is on average 3.5 million tons every year, compared with 0.5 million tons transported by air.
While air travel ensures that medical cargo can make its way quickly and safely to its final destination, the numerous handling points of this cargo make it difficult to monitor closely through the entire supply chain. “There are a lot of different stakeholders that handle the cargo. Each individual partner in the supply chain has to meet the standards,” says Glenn Abood, CEO of rfxcel. “Otherwise the quality of the supply chain can be lost.” It’s this scenario that leads to annual product losses of anywhere from $2.4 to $12.5 billion – a significant amount for a market totaling $300 to $400 billion a year.
The Role of Technology
While the hurdles facing the pharmaceutical companies in their cargo monitoring efforts are abundant, technologies exist that can help alleviate these issues – and even stop them altogether. In fact, global pharma track and trace solutions are expected to reach a value of $2.38 billion by the end of 2023. It’s clearly a market that’s in high demand, and there’s no question why. These advanced solutions allow companies to combat theft and counterfeit products, while preventing damage in the supply chain.
Perhaps the most eff ective and advanced of these solutions are those using Internet of Things (IoT) technology. IoT enables data to be sent from connected products over a virtual network, thereby streamlining logistics and keeping operations moving efficiently. IoT live monitoring can give companies valuable and abundant traceable inputs, such as the temperature, tilt, shock/vibration, humidity, speed, pressure, and motion of the vehicles and the containers they’re carrying, as they move along the supply chain. These amount to real-time updates about sensitive cargo that is accessible at any point along the supply chain, with alerts and notifications delivered to smart devices that allow for preemptive action.
Embedded sensor technologies facilitate the digitization of the pharmaceutical supply chain, meaning companies can monitor their cargo closer than ever before. By digitizing their responses, companies can manage their supply and ensure better supply chain collaboration efforts both within the company and with third party logistics partners (3PLs). Real-time monitoring, which is facilitated by IoT-based solutions, means that companies can intervene immediately if they see that there is potential for damage to the product while it is en route to its destination. No longer will cargo arrive to its final destination, only for buyers to be presented with a damaged load that they cannot use.
IoT technology can also provide companies with insights at each stage of the supply chain, granting them the ability to make data driven decisions about considerations like routes and carriers. This kind of end-to-end visibility and control means pharmaceutical companies can transform the supply chain from “a cost of doing business” and a source of regulatory risk into a true business opportunity. They’ll be able to pull predictive and prescriptive data from all parts of the supply chain, conduct innovative analytics, cut costs, comply with serialization laws, and ultimately better serve their customers.
In terms of preventing theft, the use of real-time GPS sensors that track the cargo from the manufacturer to the end-user means complete visibility. In the event that packages are taken off –route or delivered to the wrong address, the asset owner is alerted immediately and so can act quickly to protect the asset. In fact, many sensors that form part of IoT technology can offer granular data in near real time. When this is coupled with unit-level tracking, companies can see the exact location and status of their units as they are being transported. It also goes without saying that a monitoring IoT device on a particular container is a powerful deterrent to any would-be thieves.
Monitoring cargo can certainly be seen as an obstacle-ridden task for many pharmaceutical companies. But the future is bright. Innovative IoT technologies make it possible for these companies to not only overcome the many hurdles inherent to supply chain transportation, but to turn previous disadvantages in their favor. These advanced solutions allow companies to keep a closer eye than ever on their goods. This kind of visibility makes it possible to protect product quality, enjoy a strong competitive advantage, create long-lasting customer relationships, increase efficiency on operations, and ultimately boost ROI.
Tea Rajic is a multi-faceted professional with experience in diverse industries across North America, Europe, and Asia. With a professional history in product development, design and marketing strategy across B2B and B2C sectors, Tea has been working with rfxcel to help Life Science companies meet global regulatory requirements and bring value beyond compliance.