This guest blog comes to us from Megan Ray Nichols of Schooled by Science.

There's no ignoring the fact that the global cold chain industry is growing by leaps and bounds. What accounts for this growth? As always, it's a combination of necessities and luxury goods. The pharmaceutical cold supply chain could see 38 percent growth between 2015 and 2021. The entire global market for cold chain products could be worth $271 billion just one year later in 2022 — with ice cream leading the charge.

Skyrocketing demand around the globe for foods, beverages and medicinal products means one thing: Cold chain companies need all the advantages they can find to stay nimble, efficient and competitive. Here are some tips.

Make Sure Your Packaging is Up to the Task

The first step to take is figuring out how to draw a line-of-best-fit between your packaging's insulation capabilities and the optimal size and shape for your products. If you've had trouble with customers rejecting shipments due to spoilage or damage, it's probably time to revisit your packaging. In any cold chain, tertiary shipping containers — versus primary containers and case packs — are the first line of defense against the elements.

UPS recommends establishing a two-way flow when it comes to optimizing your packaging design. Consider assigning a single project owner or a small team to the task. In addition to providing recommendations, your project owner will also solicit and pass on feedback from your customer base about the condition of your products when they arrive.

In other words, product spoilage isn't something that should fall to your general customer response team — it's part of a mission to balance packaging materials and R-values with the volume and size required to ship your products efficiently.

Invest in Smarter Tools for in-Transit Monitoring

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 was a great step forward for the safety of transportable cold chain products. Among other things, the FSMA requires cold chain companies to retain safety records for a full year, including details on temperature while in transit, training programs and corrective actions taken.

Merely collecting records isn't enough, though. Modern cold chain companies need to think proactively about how to respond to temperature discrepancies while products are still en route to their destination. Step one is visibility. It means investing in IoT monitoring devices to capture real-time data points like temperature, humidity, and shock and vibration. Step two involves two-way telematics between suppliers and shippers.

Being able to prove after-the-fact that a certain shipment wasn't kept at the required temperature in transit is useful for audit trails. By exchanging this information wirelessly, in real-time, supply chain companies can take corrective action immediately. These actions can include sending automated alerts to the affected parties, diverting a shipment before it reaches its destination and dispatching a replacement shipment.

Think About Ways to Shorten the Last Mile

Online grocery sales currently stand at 2 percent of the market. Industry sources expect this figure to grow to 20 percent by 2025. As more consumers choose e-commerce retailers to make purchases of refrigerated and frozen products like flowers, meat and dairy, suppliers need to rethink their approach to last-mile delivery and how to shrink the distance between distribution centers and end users.

Here's what's being done about it:

·      Transportation management systems: Advanced last-mile delivery companies can help suppliers optimize routes and eliminate excessive vehicle traffic. This is an especially serious concern in urban centers, with congestion and emissions rules placing increasing pressure on carriers and delivery services. Redrawing inefficient delivery routes and sending updated instructions to drivers on-the-fly reduces the likelihood of delays and, therefore, spoilage of sensitive shipments.

·      Rented refrigerated warehouse space: Temporary refrigerated storage near ports and centers of trade are old news. Suppliers of cold chain products must work to meet demand in other centers of consumer consolidation as well. Building a new refrigerated warehouse closer to your customers is one way to go, so long as you do so with mindfulness of air quality guidelines for your cooling system and other critical environmental factors. Engaging a third-party logistics company and leasing that space instead could be friendlier to your bottom line.

The efficiency of your last-mile deliveries also rests on your ability to make proactive decisions about inventory distribution — and that means engaging in data analytics. Both location and artificial intelligence help cold chain companies make useful predictions about future customer purchases. Those predictions, in turn, help ensure temperature-sensitive merchandise is situated conveniently across your distribution area and doesn't need to travel a longer distance to reach the customer than is necessary.

Build Your Culture on Process Ownership and Accountability

The U.S. FDA maintains training requirements for carriers that engage in motor vehicle and rail-based transportation of food products. The FDA provides entire training modules free of charge, but such programs satisfy only the minimum requirements. Optimizing your cold chain activities means reducing errors and dropping your rate of defects to as close to zero as possible. That means you need more than a one-off training module for new employees — you need an entire culture centered on process ownership and accountability.

A successful and accountable culture in the cold chain industry must include each of the following components:
  • Understanding of inspection guidelines at ever level, plus rejection criteria for shipments that don't meet requirements. 
  • Well-documented protocols and record keeping practices for internal external audits. 
  • Knowledge of international cold chain regulations for cross-border shipments. 
Covering the basics with free training courses from the FDA is good. Developing a robust in-house training program for employees at every level is better. For the best results, however, many companies involved in the cold chain industry work with compliant third-party agencies as a way to cover their bases. 

Anticipate the Future of Cold Chain

Your final task in optimizing your approach to the cold chain is one that's never finished: You need to anticipate the future. As we've seen, eCommerce sales for foods, beverages, and medicine are set to explode in the coming years, and that means companies like yours need to be prepared to meet consumer demands safely and effectively. If you're not watching out for helpful new technologies and building an adaptable culture, you can be sure your competitors will do so in your stead.

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