Exploring IoT-powered telemetry in pharma cold chains

July 13, 2021
How incorporating IoT and telematics can prevent supply chain failures

Effective cold chain shipping remains a significant challenge for modern logistics. In addition to ensuring that goods are delivered to customers, companies also have to carefully manage the temperature of goods en route, ensuring shipments are kept within precise temperature ranges.

Despite advances in technology, cold chain shipping isn’t always successful. Cold chain failure is particularly devastating when it occurs in the pharmaceutical industry. During the COVID-19 pandemic, one UN report predicted that 1 billion vaccines could be saved with more effective cold chain management practices. Overall, vaccine waste rates have been estimated to be as high as 50%.

Cold chain telematics is seen as increasingly essential for pharmaceutical manufacturers. Telematics, which joins “telecommunications” with “informatics,” involves the transmission of vehicular data. Information from tracked shipments and vehicles provides companies with real-time information on the location of goods, as well as the environmental conditions they are under.

However, a large-scale telematics solution can be challenging to deploy. Following existing use cases and being aware of potential pitfalls will be necessary for pharma companies that want to incorporate IoT and telemetry into their cold chain.

How better telematics can prevent cold chain failures

Spoilage is a major risk for any cold chain. Keeping container conditions at the right temperature and humidity necessary to ensure shipped goods do not spoil can be a significant challenge.

Without the proper monitoring, it’s impossible to know when transport temperatures have risen beyond acceptable levels. It’s also hard to determine when spoiled goods were exposed to a temperature excursion, making it more difficult to make process changes that prevent spoilage in the future.

Traditionally, shippers manage and monitor cold chain temperature using analog records. Truck drivers, warehouse staff and other logistics workers read temperature gauges and record the results on a physical log. Later, this data is entered into a spreadsheet or online database.

This approach has two major limitations. First, there is a significant delay between measurement and reporting. If the worker who records temperatures overlooks an excursion, action can’t be taken immediately to prevent spoilage. Second, monitoring is not continuous, and there may be significant gaps between the two measurements of container temperature.

Internet-connected telematics solutions, like those enabled by the Internet of Things, solve both of these problems. Sensors that continuously capture and upload data to the cloud help ensure real-time monitoring, reporting, and analysis of cold chain conditions.

IoT monitoring the vaccine cold chain

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout may provide some valuable examples of how IoT-powered telemetry can serve cold chain logistics.

Shipping companies needed to move millions of doses of vaccines, which must be held at several different temperatures. The Pfizer vaccine requires ultracold temperatures to prevent spoilage.

On average, an estimated half of all vaccines go to waste every year due to poor storage conditions and shipment errors.

During the pandemic, software-as-a-service providers offered supply chain visibility platforms that leveraged IoT technology to provide real-time tracking solutions to vaccine shippers. Sensors attached to material containers track location, temperature, vibration, humidity, and acceleration.

Data from these sensors are sent to the cloud, where an analytics platform determines if current conditions may lead to a temperature excursion. The platform could then alert a driver or warehouse staff to this fact, enabling them to prevent spoilage.

Along with improved packaging and customized cold chain shipping procedures, this improved data on pallet location and conditions is one of the best ways to prevent pharmaceutical spoilage.

The same data also provides a real-time view into logistics operations — providing the current location, condition, and speed of shipments. If spoilage is noticed after the fact, this information could help a business pinpoint exactly where the failure occurred. It can also help supply chain managers provide shipment estimates and forecasted arrival times to stakeholders.

Similar technology can be used for refrigerated and cold chains both inside and outside the pharmaceutical industries. It’s already becoming popular in agricultural logistics, where the improved visibility that IoT offers can help satisfy requirements of new traceability initiatives while also preventing spoilage and food waste.

Best practices for integrating cold chain IoT

Using IoT for the cold chain market is growing fast and is estimated to be worth more than $4.79 billion in 2021. There are a growing number of solutions and analytics platforms you can leverage.

In general, it’s best to start small when integrating any new telematics solution. A pilot project with a specific goal — like temperature monitoring and reporting — targeting a small number of shipments or containers will provide a valuable testbed.

Starting with a pilot project can also help you navigate the high initial costs of a new IoT solution. It allows you to experiment with various sensors and solutions before committing to a particular set of devices.

This phase-in period will allow you to identify potential problem areas. For example, drivers may need to know how to effectively maintain and troubleshoot IoT sensors attached to pallets. A pilot project will offer valuable insights that you can use to develop effective training programs for when the telematics solution is scaled up.

Awareness of common IoT integration challenges can also help with a smooth transition. Interoperability of the technology you choose will help ensure your IoT sensors can exchange data and are compatible with whatever analytics platform your business uses.

It’s also important to review security measures when adopting a new IoT solution. Each IoT sensor that a business uses provides an additional point of attack for hackers wanting to gain access to operational technology or a business network.

Cybersecurity measures like patch management, network segmentation, and employee training can reduce the risk of infection by malware or a breach that IoT devices may pose.

About the Author

Emily Newton | Editor-in-Chief