Mastering the art of cold chain management: Ensuring product integrity
The supply chain is inherently complex, with interactions among various suppliers, manufacturers, carriers, and sellers susceptible to stress from sudden changes in demand, consumer behavior, or shortages of components and raw materials. A factor often overlooked, yet adding considerable complexity and raising logistics costs, is the proper management of merchandise temperature.
The cold chain management, also known as the cold supply chain, is the process of preparing, storing, and transporting perishable products such as food and medicine at the right temperature and humidity from production to delivery to the end consumer. Its primary mission is to ensure the safety and quality of products under its care.
Overseeing cold chain management necessitates using suitable packing, storage, transportation equipment, precise route design, end-to-end visibility, and agility to ensure zero variations compromising merchandise integrity. Proper cold chain execution demands specialized technology and uninterrupted access to information at every step of the process.
Why Is Controlling Temperature Important for Some Products?
A perishable product has a limited shelf life due to its physical, chemical, and biological characteristics, requiring special preservation conditions to guarantee its integrity, functionality, and purpose. This applies to many foods, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals.
Foods, for instance, decompose due to bacterial growth. Factors like humidity and exposure to certain temperatures can dramatically accelerate the rate at which bacteria reproduce. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), bacteria in foods above 39.2°F can double their number in just 20 minutes.
Some medications can change their molecular structure if exposed to temperatures outside their recommended range, losing effectiveness and compromising the patient's health. Certain COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, require storage temperatures between -76°F and -112°F to maintain their efficacy, posing unprecedented logistical challenges for pharmaceutical companies and governments responsible for administration.
Respecting cold chain management ensures product quality, increases customer satisfaction, generates demand, and contributes to improving public health.
Components of the Cold Chain
The first line of defense against thermal variations of merchandise in cold chain management is the packaging used to protect them. Selecting a type of thermally insulated packaging will reduce the risk of contamination and deterioration of products throughout their journey through the supply chain. Additionally, thermal packaging helps protect merchandise from contamination and is the most efficient way to save energy.
Thermal packaging solutions, however, are only effective when you look at all aspects in the supply chain process. A package inside a truck or warehouse at room temperature for an extended period will eventually reach a thermal equilibrium point, compromising the integrity of its contents.
As the name suggests, cold storage involves storing products in refrigerated warehouses or distribution centers. In addition to cooling systems, these facilities typically feature docks to prevent heat from entering during receiving and shipping processes. This is an indispensable element in keeping refrigeration costs as low as possible.
There are primarily two types of temperature-controlled warehouses:
Refrigerated, with a controlled temperature between 32°F and 50°F
Frozen, with a controlled temperature between -22°F and -32°F
The choice of warehouse type will depend entirely on the conservation specifications of the product.
Operating in cold conditions can be considerably more expensive than in a dry warehouse. Each cold chain warehouse must consider suitable equipment, processes, and systems to work efficiently; otherwise, profit margins could disappear quickly. Among the most critical aspects to ensure high levels of productivity are the following:
Specialized attire for warehouse personnel: Providing jackets and gloves to operators is not enough; appropriate thermal equipment ensures operators have the necessary mobility to perform their functions while being protected against extreme cold.
Warehouse Management System (WMS): An adequate WMS helps control all critical processes in a cold warehouse, from quick receipt to expiration date recording and use of inventory policies (FIFO, LIFO, FEFO).
Picking operations hardware: Controlling a cold warehouse using only paper is almost impossible. Even operating with radio frequency terminals tends to be challenging when operators wear gloves to protect themselves from the cold. An alternative that frees their hands and allows them to perform their tasks quickly and accurately is voice picking, a technology that works through headsets and a mobile device, dictating the instructions for each task they must complete to warehouse operators. Visit our blog and discover what Voice Picking is and how it works.
Refrigerated transportation refers to transporting merchandise using vehicles designed to cool and control the temperature of shipments throughout their journey. Refrigerated transportation has two main features:
Cooling system – used to cool the interior of the vehicle
Thermal insulation – used to slow down the heat transfer rate between the interior and exterior of the vehicle.
Under no circumstances is it recommended to transport perishable goods with vehicles lacking either of the two mentioned characteristics. The merchandise will eventually be exposed to heat without a cooling system, even if thermal insulation is excellent. Moreover, thermal insulation helps make the cooling system more efficient and protects it in case of malfunction.
Additionally, refrigerated transport can be complemented with a continuous temperature monitoring system. These systems work by using electronic thermometers connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), continuously reporting the temperature and sending alerts when they identify deviations from the thermal conditions of the load.
While cooling equipment and proper transport practices are crucial factors in maintaining a stable environment for products, monitoring devices provide real-time data on temperature fluctuations so that necessary adjustments can be made. With the right technology and early prediction of issues in the cold chain, it means less wasted product.
Cold chain management is no easy task, and the implicit responsibility of handling products sensitive to thermal changes is enormous. Breaking the cold chain can cause irreparable damage to public health and companies' financial results. Therefore, ensuring the integrity of the cold chain and consumer safety should be the priority for companies handling products with complex requirements. Fortunately, there are solutions to pack, store, and transport these products, ensuring they reach their final destination in optimal conditions for consumption.
I have a BSc in Industrial Engineering from Tecnologico de Monterrey and a MSc in Financial Engineering and Risk Management from Imperial College London. I enjoy writing about the issues I’ve helped my clients solve over my almost 20 years’ experience as a supply chain consultant.