With struggling supply chains working to move valuable pharmaceutical shipments around the world, including the COVID-19 vaccines, efficient cold-chain operations are more important than they have ever been. Medical goods and pharma shipments are among the highest-value goods shipped around the world and frequently move by airfreight, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when air is the most reliable transportation mode.
Unfortunately, failure to properly track and share data around these shipments is leaving gaps in supply chain visibility that could threaten shipment integrity or leave freight forwarders and shippers unaware of the status of their shipments. However, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) capability across a connected Internet of Things (IoT) can illuminate shipment status across the logistics chain.
Industry leaders are well aware of the threat to shipments during the “gray spaces” in their transit, and ULD companies are working to adopt more IoT solutions to improve tracking capabilities. Over the past year, container companies including Unilode and Jettainer have worked to improve digital connectivity of their container fleets, with the addition of BLE tags and commitments to creating digital twins of containers. BLE implementation is only the first step in providing visibility, though. According to recent Air Cargo World reporting, gray spaces in the chain of custody will remain while the industry lacks a single viewpoint to bring together data across the logistics chain.
“The idea of having these tags that you can interact with on a remote basis and use as a way of tracking freight and the condition of the freight, we think this is maybe going to be one of the biggest innovations that’s around at the moment,” says Henk Mulder, the head of digital cargo at the International Air Transport Association. “We [at IATA] are doing a lot of work on tracking what I would call static data — in other words, data related to shipments, to bookings, to where something is in the process. But the actual dynamic data of the status of freight is something that is very much on the rise.”
CODEX by Virtual Control aims to shine a light into the gray spaces in shipping. Using AI-assisted inspections, pharma companies and freight forwarders can introduce verification and visibility checkpoints throughout the transportation and ULD hand-over process. By providing a platform combining BLE tag data, information about the physical ULD conditions and custodian parties, shipments can be monitored holistically. Being able to identify every single party in charge of the shipment at any point in time, shippers can be confident that their crucial and valuable shipments will arrive for end-use safely, which is good news for all insurance companies too.
“It’s a nice new application, what Virtual Control has done, because what typically [BLE] devices are used for is things like temperature tracking, tamper-proofing of containers and things like that,” says IATA’s Mulder. “To also use that to then track the state of the actual unit, the condition itself, and the party in charge are what’s new.”
Protecting active container shipments
Aside from the problems that arise when the industry is missing a holistic view of transportation data, the expected problems of damage to containers are even more costly when it comes to active containers used for some high-value pharma shipments. The damages to these containers during shipments can lead to high price tags for carriers, which may discourage their use in the industry despite the benefits active containers offer for certain shipments. One airline that worked with ULD Care noted that 25% of its rentals of active temperature-controlled ULDs ended with a repair charge.
“I’ve talked to a couple of airlines who say if you look at all the associated costs resulting from damages and so on, the temperature-controlled thing doesn’t make sense,” says Bob Rogers, vice president and treasurer of ULD Care. For more on how digitizing ULD management can improve visibility into chain of custody and ULD repair, see “Digitizing the ULD transfer process and protecting shipments with Virtual Control.”