The transition from air to ocean freight has been taking place over the past 10 years. Traditionally, many pharmaceutical products were sent by general air freight services. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in temperature excursions, an almost inevitability due to the complexity of air freight and the many handover points. A number of industry reports highlighted the lack of compliance occurring in these modes of transport, leading to widespread concerns about the quality of the supply chain and reflection on how methods could be improved. In addition to the compliance issues, companies have come under increasing pressures to cut costs, particularly in logistics.

Today it is no longer only specialist couriers that have extensive knowledge of temperature control within the supply chain. We now have third-party logistics (3PLs) and shippers who are well versed in good distribution practice (GDP). Although this is still trickling down to other stakeholders in the supply chain, compliance standards have been boosted within the industry. This has triggered a reconsideration of the value of air freight for transporting temperature-sensitive products, with more 3PLs now providing specialist services.

Amy Shortman, CEO of ASC Associates, has witnessed these trends in working within the industry for the past 25 years. Starting her career as a global specialist clinical trials logistics supplier, before establishing the UK and Irish operation for one of the world’s leading active temperature control container organisations, she has worked within road, sea and air freight and thus has been able to gain a 360° perspective of logistics in the pharmaceutical supply chain. Looking at current industry practices, the rapid technological advances have opened up huge potential for optimising tracking shipments. “Historically, retrospective temperature data was used to prove that a shipment had been kept at a certain level,” says Shortman. “We now have technology that can monitor that in real time and can highlight any temperature variations.”

More than just providing information about temperature, recent developments have facilitated the ability to predict key issues along the supply chain. Although in their infancy, such technologies can provide valuable insights. “So if you imagine a temperature-controlled truck bringing in products, they can tap into the telematrix of that vehicle and bring that data in,” explains Shortman. “Then once it goes into an air freight environment, it can also get information about issues like flight delays, civil unrest, strike action as well as temperature data of the actual product, as there are also monitors inside the shipment.” This data is valuable in enabling companies totake action quickly and prevent major issues from occurring. “By bringing this all together, what they’re doing is real-time auditing of their supply chain and adopting a risk management approach to every single shipment,” says Shortman. “I think these technologies are going to be massive in the future.”

Not a novel idea

This is a novel trend, particularly for air freight, which has traditionally been seen as a ‘black hole’. “This new technology allows for visibility of your freight, in any environment globally, knowing exactly where it is through GPS, the temperature it is, how it’s being handled and having the ability to connect to various different companies,” explains Shortman. “You might have 10 different airlines that you’re using, with three different forwarders; you don’t necessarily want to be going into each of their individual systems to get data, you want that to be proactively sent to you and then to be filtered through algorithms to give you what you need.”

These technologies are also providing enhanced visibility of the supply chain that has historically never been possible. “Through smart technology, you can use tablets and phones via an app to take photographs and to upload live checklists, speak to a driver, talk to someone in a warehouse via a system so that all of that information is going up into a cloud and is available to anyone who needs to see that within the supply chain,” says Shortman. “That is a real game-changer.”

In addition to the rapidly developing technologies, personalised medicines are also driving change in the industry and causing companies to reassess the value of air freight for temperature-controlled products. “We’re going to see a shift in the next 10 or 20 years with more personalised and highly complex medicines entering the market,” explains Shortman. “Those will be more suited to air freight.”

This includes products like CAR-T therapies, which are more time and temperature sensitive than other types of pharmaceuticals. “These will have more of a natural synergy to the speedier types of transportation because they have a more limited shelf life,” says Shortman.

Personalised medicines also tend to be shipped in low volumes, another key plus for air freight. “Traditionally, ocean freight has taken large volume, low value,” says Shortman. “There’s a break-even point for most companies whereby if they have only a small number of pallets, it is more economical for them to use air freight for very low-volume, highvalue products.”

Hit the open road

Although these developments are new for air freight, they have been used successfully within road freight for a number of years. “We’ve seen the value in areas that are high risk within a road freight environment of having a system that not only tells you that somebody has stolen your load but as part of that escalation, will direct to law enforcement so that companies don't have to wait for someone to pick up the phone and say my load has got stolen,” says Shortman. “Instead they can go into a system via an app, and track the load themselves.”

These capabilities are especially beneficial for high-value pharmaceutical products, which can have dangerous consequences if they fall into the wrong hands. “We don't want products to be entering into either an illegal supply chain or to be taken outside of the temperature range and then put back into the supply chain and then to be put back into it,” says Shortman. “It's really important for patient safety that we manage those issues as quickly as possible.”

It all comes together

In order to optimise control of the supply chain, it is necessary to not only track products in air freight but all products, regardless of how they are being transported. Although there is a wealth of data available, there is currently a lack of tools that are able to amalgamate these disparate sources in a GDP compliant manner. “While you can access various bits of data, if you’re managing logistics for a global pharmaceutical company, you would not have the time necessarily to view all of that,” explains Shortman. “What you want to do is have a system that is bringing all of that together so you have one view of where all your shipments are globally irrespective of which airline, which forwarding company, whether they're being shipped by ocean or air and then to know whether there are any issues.”

Today it is no longer only specialist couriers that have extensive knowledge of temperature control within the supply chain.

Of course, in order for this data to be useful, it has to be actionable. “It’s is brilliant that we’re getting all of this data globally from various different sources,” says Shortman. “We’re seeing huge interest from shippers who don’t want to be told about every bit of handling that goes wrong but instead to have a system that gives them an overview so they can monitor logistics companies to see how they’re handling their freight from a performance point of view.” This allows enhanced risk management but also for insurance premiums to be reduced.

Number of years that it has taken to transition from air to ocean freight transportation in the pharmaceutical industry.

All aboard an effective measure

Making effective use of this wealth of information is not a technology issue. “When you talk about things like AI and technology, we have a generational skills gap of people who are now in senior positions that perhaps are not as au fait with technology as the younger generations,” says Shortman. “For example, 25 years ago, we did not have access to the internet to see whether our shipments had flown as booked, it would have been a manual process of phoning them up and giving an airway bill number.”

The speed of change is not likely to slow down any time soon and it is thus imperative that companies put themselves in the best possible position to take advantage of its capabilities. “It’s about investing in upskilling existing workers to become more aware of how technology can benefit their particular roles,” says Shortman. Although this is an effective longterm strategy, other approaches can help to save both time and money. “We’re certainly seeing more and more companies outsourcing to get immediate expertise,” says Shortman. “A lot of the time they don’t necessarily need to employ a full time person for that role.”

This isn’t about just about building competencies among select individuals. “I think that where we’re talking about things like AI, I feel that we have an obligation to make sure that we are upskilling the whole industry,” says Shortman. “The future changes are going to be quite profound, particularly within transport and logistics.”

However, this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to become experts in these technologies. “I have so many people coming to me saying that 'I need to understand everything about blockchain,'” says Shortman. “I don't think that everyone is going to have to become an expert to be able to operate it. It is just being aware of what it is and how it is going to help processes in the future.”

The drive to progress

Although traditionally conceptualised as being a barrier to innovation, Shortman believes that regulation has been a powerful force in bringing about positive change. “It has forced everyone, whether that’s air, sea or road, to up their game,” explains Shortman. “That only ever happens when it’s driven by the regulators and then is pushed down by the shippers to all of the supply chain partners.”

These developments have no doubt improved the supply chain for all stakeholders and thus should be welcomed by the industry. Despite the considerable effort involved in ensuring compliance, in the long run, the time and financial savings more than pay off.