The increasing importance of temperature-sensitive cargo is posing a series of new challenges.
A secure and organised cold chain can provide your company with sustained dividends. We talk with some of the industry's leading representatives to reveal their hints about this ever-increasing sector.
The increasing importance of temperature-sensitive cargo, especially that of pharmaceuticals, is constantly posing a series of new challenges for logistics and transport solutions providers.
Although the industry is not new to the Middle East, where the high temperatures and humidity, together with the often laborious customs environment, can make keeping a cool chain secure even more difficult, the wealth of facilities, such as the dedicated Dubai Flower Centre, are designed to ensure that there are no loose or broken links in the cool chain.
The CCQI is the benchmark system, which gives helpful guidance for best practice.
While the cool chain has generally been associated with perishables such as foods and flowers, a significant number of other products also require temperature-sensitive transport.
Pharmaceuticals, which are temperature-tested during testing and manufacture, are especially sensitive; if subjected to the incorrect climate, these can be harmful or even poisonous.
Perhaps even more sensitive than drugs are biotech products such as vaccines, and also blood and blood products, the last of which obviously rely on fast, efficient and secure transportation.
In addition, some hi-tech materials, such as semi-conductors, will also require a secure and temperature-controlled environment and, as a result, the influence of cool chain technology has never been more important to logistics operators.
There is an obvious link between this type of product, however. Whereas the freight of perishable produce such as food involves the air transport of relatively cheap goods in bulk, the movement of pharmaceuticals and hi-tech products will generally involve high-value items.
So whereas a container of fruit and vegetables may only cost a few thousand dollars, a container of pharmaceuticals may run into the millions. In an environment where the price of fuel is starting to pose difficulties for a number of freight operators around the world, the cost-efficient nature of the transport of products which are more expensive is becoming clear.
The not-for-profit Cool Chain Association was established in 2003 in Brussels with the aim of developing standards that would help to guide its members through the pitfalls of transporting perishables and temperature-sensitive products (PTSP).
"The Cool Chain Association aims to harmonise the cool supply chain," explains the association's secretary, Kerstin Belgardt.
"We want our members sitting at the same table, all being part of the same cool chain - despite the fact that members will often be competitors - and to cooperate in order to find the best ways of transporting temperature-sensitive products."
In 2005, the Cool Chain Association created the sector's first ever attempt to set standards for entire logistics industry, the Cool Chain Quality Indicators (CCQI).
This standard allows operators to carry out a check for conformity with state-of-the-art practice and provides a quantitative evaluation for cool chain quality.In general terms, the measurement criteria are tailored to individual operational links, such as apron handling, long-term storage, truck and trailer transport and aircraft transport.
"The CCQI is the benchmark system, which gives guidance for best practice," outlines Belgardt. "The result is the best product with a longer shelf-life for the consumer and less waste - this will clearly provide more profit for the cool chain participant."
For us, the greatest danger is clearly the non-adherence to standard operating procedures.
With the association specifically referring to seafood, dairy products, meats, poultry, vegetables, flowers, medicines, bio-medicals and chemicals as being particularly sensitive to changes in temperature, membership of the group is clearly a matter worth considering for regional freight operators transporting products of this nature.
From the regional perspective, the Cool Chain Association's membership already includes Emirates, Emirates Aviation College, Qatar Airways, Mohebi Logistics and Swift Freight International.
So what are the latest techniques available that are used by regional and international operators to facilitate a cool chain solution? Luxembourg-based cargo airline Cargolux has invested, and continues to invest, in the most modern and reliable aircraft types, especially the B747-400F and the B747-8, which it indicates are the ideal equipment for the transport of temperature-sensitive cargo.
"Cargolux also created a Keepcool team aimed at optimising the cargo processes, guiding and supervising the unbroken cool chain from acceptance of the goods through to final delivery," says Franco Nanna, head of Cargolux's management support team and a member of the company's ‘Keepcool' team.
"Furthermore, standard operating procedures for tailor-made services through intensive collaboration with the stakeholders are also crucial."
Cargolux's reliance on staff knowledge and training is matched by other operators.
"The key techniques that Mohebi relies on are the training of our people, specifically municipality food training or HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) training, but we also put a lot of time into people awareness and product awareness," says a spokesperson for Mohebi Logistics.
"The key to success is preventing the variances from having the ability to react quickly through trained people." Mohebi Logistics, also a member of the Cool Chain Association, is based in the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai, and has placed a strong emphasis on providing secure warehousing and transport with multi-temperature range capability.
"The most popular and promising technology is RFID," indicates Belgardt.
"There are several different tags, which control not only permanent temperature, but also give warnings when temperatures fluctuate and can even relay instructions as to how to fix the problem - for example, by re-routing the transport vehicle elsewhere. Furthermore, controlled-atmosphere containers are also currently receiving a lot of attention in the market," she adds.There are several obvious points where the cool chain can be broken, most notably at the point where goods are moved from one container to another.
Cutting short the number of exchanges will obviously help lower the potential for cool chain breakdown, as will taking responsibility for a greater length of the chain.
"The biggest leak is undoubtedly the human being," says Belgardt. "If staffs are not trained to handle cool cargo, companies will encounter huge problems. If a package of tomatoes is lying out in the sun, simply because staff members are unaware of the temperature at which it has to be stored, then the amount of wastage will obviously be high."
Tags give warnings when temperatures fluctuate and can relay instructions to fix the problem.
For Cargolux, the process starts even before goods are picked up by the company from the purchaser's warehouse, with trucks being cooled or heated to the correct temperature for three hours beforehand.
"For us, the greatest danger is non-adherence to standard operating procedures," explains Nanna.
"In addition, the non-availability or capability of temperature-control equipment, for example, in an aircraft, warehouse, cool container or cool truck, also has the potential to break the chain."
It seems crucial that companies constantly remain vigilant for potential problems, particularly at those times when products are shifted from one link to another.
"One of the most predictable places where a breakdown can occur is, for example, when a cargo plane lands, and products are shifted from the plane to the clearance system, then to customs, and then onwards to delivery," says the Mohebi Logistics spokesperson.
"At any one of these links, there is the potential for the product to be irreparably damaged."
With regard to drugs and vaccines specifically, there are other sorts of problems and obstructions that companies can face.
With ever more stringent regulations being handed down by national governments, the onus is always on the operator to ensure that any break in the chain results in both forwarders and shippers being informed proactively.
Pharmaceuticals generally do not stand lengthy transport times, and the experience of some companies is that it can be hard to obtain the full details of what is required for each shipment. "Routine is also dangerous," outlines Nanna.
"Therefore regular training and awareness programmes are run to keep everyone in the transportation chain at the highest knowledge levels about handling procedures."
The Cargolux routine is run like a drill; after being picked up, more often than not straight from the drug manufacturer by temperature-controlled trucks, the pharmaceuticals are then stored at their required temperature during their brief transit period in Luxembourg.
They are then loaded onboard a B747-400 freighter, under the supervision of dedicated Cargolux staff.
The company's Luxair Cargo Centre offers a series of specialist cool cells to assist the storage of highly sensitive products such as pharmaceuticals and these cells allow the temperature to be closely regulated between 0 and 20 degrees Celsius.
At some selected airports, complete ULDs can be picked up at the aircraft and immediately stored in a refrigerated truck.All this is facilitated by a policy that ensures that Cargolux is aware of the exact requirements of the client and that the booking is confirmed at least 96 hours prior to shipping.
Whereas only a few years ago it was a requirement simply for temperature-sensitive cargo to be kept covered, companies now must prove that specific temperatures have been maintained throughout each stage of the process.
Of course, companies operating in the Middle East have a unique set of concerns to worry about, but it would appear that - once again - skilled and knowledgeable crew at the point of arrival can often alleviate potential worries.
"Although the rising temperatures continue to be a challenge in the Gulf, the ground handlers in the UAE are very well-organised and Dnata in Dubai has a very efficient perishables team in place for the special handling of such commodities," explains Sherry Vaz-Arab, station manager of Cargolux's UAE office.
"An added advantage is the Dubai Flower Centre, boasting state-of-the-art equipment where currently all temperature-sensitive cargo is stored until clearance."
Certainly, there appears to be a rise in the amount of pharmaceuticals being freighted worldwide.
UPS recently broke ground on a healthcare distribution centre in Roermond, Holland, which will open in early 2009 and will provide healthcare customers with compliance tools and customised inventory management, along with temperature-sensitive storage and quality assurance services.
Furthermore, the company's Proactive Response provides a monitoring engine for proactive 24-hour attention to help ensure product integrity.
Cargolux has also seen an increase in pharmaceutical shipments, which it says has been derived through ongoing guaranteed capacity and the regular follow-up of standard operating procedures in collaboration with the operator's stakeholders.
So, with the amount of goods being freighted constantly rising - especially on the pharmaceutical front - the message is clear for the Middle East's operators.
Learning more about what an effective cool chain can do for your customers is destined to benefit your bottom line.
As more companies make the move to join associations that represent cold chain quality, the more likely it is that each firm will profit from the increasing shared knowledge base.
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