Food waste is one of the many costs of the lack of temperature-controlled logistics infrastructures globally.
For many perishable food products, temperature-controlled logistics is mission-critical. It is vital to improve food security, ensure economic prosperity, limit carbon emissions and sustain public health.
What are temperature-controlled logistics?
Temperature controlled logistics (TCL) is a branch of logistics that focuses on the storage, preservation and shipment of goods that require maintenance at specific temperatures and are sensitive to atmospheric conditions.
These goods are typically meats, seafoods, vegetables, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
It is also referred to as cold chain logistics.
TCL mainly revolves around carefully handling such products within a low-temperature environment while maintaining an unbroken ‘cold chain’ at all stages of the transportation cycle.
For example, collection, packaging, processing, storage, and distribution.
What is a temperature-controlled supply chain?
It constitutes a series of refrigerated facilities to sustain consistent optimal conditions for perishable goods within a given temperature range.
The most common products that require temperature-controlled logistics are:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Frozen food like ice cream
- Dairy products
- Beverages like wines and spirits
- Chemical products
- Temperature controlled pharma products like vaccines
- High-value electronics or artwork.
Why is temperature-controlled logistics important?
The majority of perishable products require a constant cold temperature to stay fit for human consumption.
For example, pharmaceuticals, particularly, medicines can become chemically unstable when exposed to very hot or cold environments.
Such environments can negatively alter the chemical properties of drugs and trigger adverse side effects, yet most drugs are vital for public health. These risks are further exacerbated with specific pharmaceuticals, like vaccines, antibiotics, and blood products.
And as drug development advances in complexity, so does the need for accurate temperature standardisation during transportation to ensure efficacy.
Due to such dire implications for public health and safety, temperature-controlled logistics are typically stringently monitored by national regulators.
Additionally, manufacturers of products like seafood, dairy products, and frozen meat, understand the importance of sustaining products at a set temperature for the duration of the sales cycle.
While some perishable products can survive temperature fluctuations, others become unsafe with even the slightest temperature deviation.
Farmers and manufacturers know that such deviations can put their customers at risk of food poisoning or foodborne illness.
Furthermore, without temperature-controlled logistics, the trade of agricultural products would take place within limited geographic areas.
However, TCL infrastructures allow farmers to sell their produce much farther afield, thus contributing to income stabilisation for agriculturally dependent households.
Pharmaceutical temperature-controlled transportation
The two years have seen a rise in the need for temperature-sensitive biopharmaceuticals transportation mainly due to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pharma temperature-controlled transportation focuses on logistical activities that ensure the safe transportation of medicinal products. This means adhering to high-level regulatory and security measures to prevent medicine adulteration and theft.
These activities mainly revolve around delivery-date management and optimal temperature control as both the patient’s life and the pharma company’s reputation could be at stake.
Generally, while the cost of pharmaceutical temperature-controlled transportation is relatively low, many things can go wrong in the cold chain supply.
Hence, transporting pharmaceuticals across the globe can be a high-risk operation.
However, these risks can be mitigated by choosing the right partner for temperature controlled transportation of sensitive pharmaceuticals.
How does cold chain logistics work: Factors to consider
Despite many unfounded assumptions, the cold chain supply chain doesn’t begin with transportation. Temperature-sensitive products require a consistent, specific temperature range throughout their entire lifecycle.
A significant rise or fall in temperature during any part of the supply chain can spell disaster for the goods. Furthermore, a broken temperature chain can, in turn, negatively impact the end-user, especially with products that are ingested by humans.
This means that cold chain logistics should keep the temperature for goods constant throughout all phases. It starts from packaging, and carefully choosing transportation routes, to timing and visibility of the goods– till the customer finally receives the goods.
To achieve this optimally, some specific cold chain factors have to be considered depending on the industry. For example:
- Temperature margin for error
- The product’s temperature and humidity range
- Acceptable risk levels
- Risks to a product’s integrity
- Availability of backup temperature controls
- How temperature is controlled
- Airflow and its impact on temperature
- Temperature logging and data tracking
Types of temperature controlled logistics
This TCL category relates to traditional vehicles that are installed with thermostatically controlled cargo compartments to enable required temperature ranges to be maintained.
Such refrigerated vehicles are typically small vans and trucks equipped with electronic control systems to maintain optimal temperatures for goods.
While some smaller vehicles rely on their engines to power their refrigeration units, most large vehicles possess independently powered units and electrical backup systems.
To safely transport temperature-sensitive goods, these vehicles are typically constructed with a host of unique features.
For example, dual-evaporators to maintain chilled temperatures, temperature monitoring equipment to keep consistent logs, and remote temperature monitoring capabilities.
Active shipping system
Active shipping systems are mainly employed in air freight and sea freight shipping. These are powered primarily by internal batteries or via an external electricity source, and thus well suited to long-term shipments.
Passive shipping system
Passive shipping systems require no human or external input as they possess the ability to maintain consistent temperatures over a set period of time.
However, after this set period of time, they expire. Such systems are better suited to short journeys to minimise temperature fluctuations or errors.
Also read our article on “Offshore reefer container temperature range”
Airfreight vs Sea freight temperature-controlled logistics
Some years back, sea freight wasn’t considered a viable option for products with a very short shelf life and those that need temperature-controlled transport. Airfreight was a preferable option since, in case of delays, air cargo planes can be rerouted within a day or hours.
Delivering temperature-sensitive pharma products via air also carries a significantly lower risk for most of the new biopharmaceuticals and gene therapies. Especially in emergency scenarios, as was witnessed during the COVID-19 vaccine surge when instances of vaccine expiration were an overarching threat.
However, the costs associated with air freights are substantially larger than the ocean freight. This means that the overall cost of a single product may be multiplied many times, which may not be an acceptable change for end-users.
With advancement of technology and development of high end offshore reefer containers, safe transport of temperature-sensitive products is now possible through sea freights.
New age products enhanced by Thermo King technology, like our ICEWAVE 8ft Offshore Reefer Container (2.5m) and ICESTORM 10ft Offshore Reefer Container (3m) include microprocessor controllers and enormous processing power to accurately control the refrigeration cycle.
What are the main processes involved?
Maintaining sensitive goods at appropriate temperatures is a highly sophisticated process that involves multiple cold chain management challenges and uncertainties.
For example, poor packaging, product quality problems, lack of proper documentation, and even shipping delays.
In addition, companies must devise ways of keeping costs down, and adequately handle capacity and different resource limitations during TCL processes.
Let’s look at some of the main processes involved in the temperature-controlled logistics supply chain, shall we?
Transporting to the shipper’s location
Passive cooling systems and refrigerated vehicles should be used to transport temperature-sensitive goods like drugs to ensure that they won’t be compromised en route.
Once the goods reach the shipper’s storage facilities, there should be a seamless transition with the right equipment to ensure the safety of the goods like medicines.
This is because it is important to minimise the amount of time the medicines spend at ambient temperatures, especially in warmer climates.
For example, walk-in cold storage facilities or dry ice can be employed to help maintain the temperature within active and passive containers.
At the warehouse
While shipping to a location necessitates temperature controlled features, the warehouse the product is stored before transportation should also boast similar facilities.
For temperature-sensitive goods, even a minute of fluctuation can cause significant damage.
Not to mention, a power outage, changes in humidity or even overloading of the vehicle can further exacerbate the issues. To address this, ensure the warehouse facility maintains an alarm with logs to help you figure out the uncertainties as, and when they occur.
Another process that requires careful consideration is ramp handling, and physical loading activities as potential delays can occur due to the nature of the cargo.
Since an electrical connection to power is required during these activities, ensure that all touchpoints have a compatible connection. Additionally, they should have the ability to output appropriate wattage to maintain the required temperature.
Once the goods are on the shipping vessel, the temperature controls should already be taken care of. However, the positioning of the cold storage unit is as important. For example, it is important to avoid storing medicines near cargo doors or other cargo in general.
This is because adequate circulation is necessary to reach a stabilised temperature.
Additionally, it is imperative to ensure cooling instruments remain active for the duration of the transit. Sometimes energy-saving modes can be turned on without notice, and cooling apparatus switched off during rest periods.
In conclusion, when selecting appropriate cold storage systems across the cold chain supply, always consider and pay attention to:
- Temperature controls
- Back up temperature controls
- The temperature range and volume of the goods
- The layout of the storage unit and airflow
- Temperature logging and data tracking capabilities
- Cargo placement (avoiding areas where temperature variation is likely to happen, like near bay doors)
Optimum temperatures for different products
As we have reiterated throughout this article, temperature-controlled logistics impact every stage of a temperature-sensitive good’s cycle.
From its industry or farm production, storage and packaging, transport to the warehouse, and storage at the client’s facility.
However, disparate temperature-sensitive products have different temperature requirements. For example:
- Frozen meat and seafood: between -18° C and 0° C (-0.4° F and 32° F)
- Pharmaceutical medicines: between 2° C and 8° C (36° F and 46° F)
- Deep frozen meat and seafood: between -30° C and -18° C (-22° F and -0.4° F)
- Chill fruits, vegetables, and dairy products: between 7° C and 14° C (44.6° F and 57.2° F)
- Ambient fresh produce: between 14° C and 24° C (57.2° F and 75.2° F)
Challenges with cold chain logistics
Cold supply chain shippers face increasing pressure to ensure temperature-sensitive goods are kept at optimal temperatures. However, this constant challenge only gets more sophisticated with every passing year.
The different challenges range from increases in temperature sensitivity, quality standards, and volumes of goods, to continually mounting and dynamic regulations.
It is becoming more complicated to service the global market, drive down costs, become more strategic, and address capacity and resource constraints– all while managing customers’ dynamic demands for their temperature-sensitive cargo.
Furthermore, as everyday consumers get more informed about their health, the demand for fresher foods and products raises another logistical challenge.
As suppliers of fresh foods find more innovative ways to bring their products to the consumer safely and quickly, the pressure mounts on shippers to maintain this freshness.
And with more unique foods currently sourced from all over the world, maintaining the integrity of foods becomes all the more challenging.
Unfortunately, the food industry is not the only one where temperature fluctuations within the supply chain can negatively impact goods.
The pharma industry typically delivers temperature-sensitive medicines that can diversely range in their temperature requirements.
As these medicines travel from one end of a country to another, even a slight temperature deviation can make an expensive, and potentially life-saving medicine to get “compromised” before reaching the patient.
If temperature fluctuations are not strictly monitored and reported, patients can receive ‘poisonous’ medication that adversely impacts their treatment, or can lead to a fatality.
Temperature-controlled logistics revolves around understanding and organising the storage, preservation and transportation of temperature-sensitive goods.
As mentioned, it is a critical logistics discipline for minimising the health risks forend customers, maintaining quality control, and protecting the client’s reputation.
Planning, organising, and safely implementing any temperature-sensitive product transport in a secure manner requires maintaining the right temperature and humidity. Additionally, it may need the availability of appropriate equipment –in an end-to-end manner.
Remember, different products necessitate disparate temperature ranges.
And to keep abreast with these varied requirements, it’s imperative to choose a company that assures high-end technologies like temperature controlled offshore reefer systems.
A graduate (Business) from KDU, Jason Tan, is the current Business Director (Sales) for MGS Icestorm and has been associated with the company for the past 10 years.
With over 13 years in the shipping industry, he has had a significant contribution to Malaysia’s oil and gas industry in the engine and boat supply sector.
His expertise includes managing offshore catering business, offshore reefer containers, AI technology, offshore gas tanks, A60 pressurized cabins, etc. His contributions have helped establish MGS, in partnership (joint venture) with Thermo King and Honeywell to produce state of art Offshore Reefer Container products.