Touching hearts, impacting lives. Evolving story of pharma logistics

Technology will play a key role in coming days in pharma logistics in various forms

Touching hearts, impacting lives. Evolving story of pharma logistics
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There are some activities that are purely business, and some that touch your hearts. Pharmaceutical logistics is a clear category where both happen every day, every second. Here are some accounts of heart-touching moments…

It is very difficult to list one shipment out of so many we handle but there are a few which make an impact on the individual and touch the heart.


Recently we had such an experience when I received a call from a parent of a hospitalised child with reference from one of our pharma customers. They had to ship a body fluid from the hospitalised child to the U.S. under very strict temperature control and time sensitivity. They tried once using a non-qualified package through a courier company who was not able to deliver the sample to the lab - neither in time nor within the required temperature conditions. They were very disappointed after the event and approached me with a lot of anxiety.
Given the sensitivity, my team took this up as a personal challenge, and designed the solution considering the sample collection time, transit time, and also adding some time for customs clearance and buffer for unexpected delay. With our experience, we suggested nominating a courier company who has the right systems to handle such critical shipments.
Together, we attempted the task once again for the collection of diagnostic sample from Chennai, connecting to the flight from Bengaluru to the USA. Customs documentation was filed in advance before the box arrived in the U.S. and immediately collected and delivered to the required laboratory with clock work precision. After the sample was delivered to the lab, it was a great feeling of achievement and satisfaction to our so many years of professional experience.

- Ravi Kumar Tummalapalli, Managing Director, va-Q-tec India

One project that stands out for us at UPS Healthcare is the Direct-to-Patient services launched in India in May 2020. During the Covid-19 lockdown, patients participating in clinical trials were unable to visit hospitals for their treatments. To address this issue, our subsidiary Marken initiated a service to collect medications from hospitals and deliver them directly to patients' homes. This initiative not only ensured patient safety but also maintained the continuity of crucial clinical trials during an unprecedented time. We started this service in 94 cities and soon expanded it to cover 110 cities and towns across India. Our dedicated personnel collected medicines from doctors at hospitals and delivered them right at the doorsteps of terminally ill patients involved in these trials - a testament to our commitment towards healthcare accessibility.
-Grégory Goba-Blé, Managing Director, UPS in India

Air cargo industry, despite geopolitical headwinds and trade restrictions, reported 63.6 billion cargo-tonne kilometres globally in the first quarter of 2024, an increase of over 13 percent year-on-year and four percent quarter-on-quarter, according to the latest update from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

"Notably, this is the industry's third consecutive positive YoY growth in over two years, and momentum is growing from the eight percent expansion in Q42023. All regions benefited from higher demand for air cargo, and much of the increase can be explained by the booming e-commerce sector, perishables and special cargo such as lithium batteries. There is also an ongoing strategic diversification of supply chains by manufacturers and logistics providers in response to geopolitical developments."

Siddhant Iyer, Head, Cargo Marketing and Customer Solutions, Cathay Cargo

Siddhant Iyer, Head, Cargo Marketing and Customer Solutions, Cathay Cargo

It is in this background that it is heartening to note that Cathay Cargo is finding particular success with the highest active pharma movements from Puerto Rico, an offline origin, among its entire network. "We bring pharmaceutical products from San Juan to destinations in the Chinese Mainland and the rest of the APAC region utilising our robust network, and at the same time collaborating with interline partners who hold the same IATA CEIV Pharma certification as we do to uphold the pharmaceutical handling standards," says Siddhant Iyer, Head, Cargo Marketing and Customer Solutions, Cathay Cargo.

Pharma use case for air cargo
The customer response to the Shipped Pharma solution has been overwhelmingly positive, says Joern Roehl, Head of Products, Quality, and Transformation, MSC Air Cargo.. "Our premium service, which goes beyond merely transporting pharmaceuticals from point A to point B, has been highly appreciated for its attention to detail and commitment to quality. Customers particularly value the high standards we maintain in transporting pharmaceuticals, our robust and innovative trucking network and our strong customer-centric focus. These elements have built a trusted partnership with our customers, ensuring their pharmaceutical shipments are transported safely and on time.

"Since launching the Shipped Pharma solution, we have learned the importance of customer-centricity and partnership. Continuous feedback and adaptability to customer needs have been crucial. The launch has united our organisation and strengthened partnerships with ground handling agents and other suppliers. Detailed planning, execution and a focus on quality and detail are essential. These internal learnings will expedite future product launches and complete our special cargo portfolio.

"By focusing on these key areas, MSC Air Cargo offers a superior product that meets high customer expectations, paving the way for future success in pharmaceutical transportation."

Andreas Behnke, CEO & Station Manager, Swissport Basel and member of the Global Cargo Chair of Swissport responsible for pharma business

Andreas Behnke, CEO & Station Manager, Swissport Basel and member of the Global Cargo Chair of Swissport responsible for pharma business

Swissport is launching a cooling cell at Basel Airport, enhancing its ability to handle active containers while maintaining precise temperature control from truck to aircraft, says Andreas Behnke, CEO & Station Manager, Swissport Basel and member of the Global Cargo Chair of Swissport, responsible for pharma business. "This innovation maintains the environment at seamlessly 5 degrees from the truck up to the aircraft. It's designed to reduce truck frequencies at the airport by allowing manufacturers to consolidate multiple shipments in the same truck and load them into prepared cool containers, also known as air cargo unit load devices, at the airport. This unique approach adds significant value to stakeholders including manufacturers and forwarders, streamlining logistics and minimising environmental impact.

"Pharmaceuticals constitute 70 percent of operations in Basel, a key hub for us. We expect organic growth aligned with industry developments and demographic shifts. Certain airports like Brussels, Chicago and Singapore are critical in pharmaceutical logistics, guiding our strategic focus for the future.

"Our major investments include certifying additional airports as pharma centres to expand our capacity. We're ensuring these facilities meet stringent standards and certifications like IATA CEIV. Additionally, we're investing in new pharma centres to ensure comprehensive coverage across all temperature ranges."

The solutions and use cases on digital tracking, monitoring as well as data exchange have increased significantly in the world of pharmaceutical transportation, says Iyer of Cathay Cargo. "This is supported by the advancement of tracking technologies and cloud-based platforms. Investments have also increased in cold storage facilities and equipment to cater to the growing demand for efficient cold chain management. Furthermore, sustainable initiatives have also become crucial considerations in the supply chain of pharmaceutical products. There have been closer collaborations between various stakeholders within the pharma and life science supply chain for more open discussions on the common expectations and standards of pharmaceutical handling practices such as the IATA CEIV standards."

Cathay Cargo customers have shown great interest in its Ultra Track service, and have seen value in the enhanced shipment data visibility and 24/7 shipment monitoring by its operation control centre. "This year we have also collaborated with Envirotainer, one of our strategic cool container partners, on data integration to provide tracking and monitoring features for our customers," says Iyer.

Customers are finding active and passive solutions on offer from Cathay Cargo more simplified and easier to use. Iyer says: "Customers also appreciate our enhanced features such as multiple transportation temperature ranges, a wide range of cool containers and the innovative design at our new Pharma Handling Centre, including the insulated truck docks and movable charging points for active containers."

Jordan Kohlbeck, Head of Pharmaceuticals, IAG Cargo

Jordan Kohlbeck, Head of Pharmaceuticals, IAG Cargo

Technology efficiencies have been notable at New Premia, one of the major cargo handling facilities at the London Heathrow hub, says Jordan Kohlbeck, Head of Pharmaceuticals, IAG Cargo. "The entire New Premia facility has been designed to handle more cargo for customers as efficiently as possible with 11 new landside doors, meaning less waiting time for drivers dropping off or collecting cargo.

"The facility contains a dedicated Constant Climate Quality Centre specifically for pharmaceuticals with 27 dedicated cool cells guaranteeing temperature-sensitive shipments are held in the right conditions. These areas allow us to transport larger volumes of pharmaceuticals across Europe, the Americas and Asia, meeting the demands of our customers.

"Since New Premia opened in May 2023, we’ve handled over 200,000 tonnes of cargo in the facility. It boasts industry-leading technology, including an automated material handling system (MHS) and fully integrated warehouse management system (WMS), allowing for an overall smoother processing of goods from delivery to airside."

Close monitoring and shipment transparency are crucial in the life sciences and healthcare sector, particularly for time-and-temperature controlled goods, says Weiss of DHL Global Forwarding. "DHL LifeTrack, our specialised cold chain tracking solution, ensures that our customers are continuously informed about every aspect of their critical time-and-temperature controlled shipments and as well as system components for quality compliance, enabling DHL to manage quality compliance requirements in a highly system-driven and digitised fashion. With real-time alerts, customers receive timely updates on the shipment's temperature, location and transit time, enabling them to stay ahead and make informed decisions for their business. Additionally, our reporting feature empowers customers to maintain control and stay proactive in managing their shipments.”

Challenges for pharma transportation
The pandemic underscored the critical nature of pharmaceutical logistics, adds Behnke of Swissport. "It highlighted how predictable and safe pharma shipments need to be. The industry saw that those capable of managing pharmaceuticals can handle any supply chain due to stringent quality levels and compliance demands.

"We've seen strong competition in packaging innovations such as active or hybrid cool containers. Monitoring of the cool chain has become standard, crucial for survival in this market. There's been a heightened awareness of pharmaceutical logistics, pushing technological advancements to improve predictability and risk assessment, especially since the pandemic. A notable development from the manufacturer's side was the adaptation in vaccine logistics, where lyophilization (free drying) will enable ocean freight bulk transport, a significant advancement in a short span."

The biggest challenge was the sudden surge in demand for transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical shipments amidst limited airfreight capacity and frequent disruptions, says Iyer of Cathay Cargo. "To meet our customers’ requirements, Cathay Cargo worked closely with our partners and deployed resources where capacity was not available or limited. We introduced Ultra Track for higher visibility of pharmaceutical shipments and organised chartered flights to where treatments and test kits were urgently required. The learnings were that we as an industry are resilient, flexible and agile in adapting to disruptions, and we must continue to learn and be prepared for similar challenges in the future."

Since Covid, supply chains have been in a pretty much constant state of evolution and disruption, says Goba-Blé of UPS. "Many of these factors can’t be controlled, so how do you best control the areas you can?

"Overall, pharma supply chains have shown themselves to be adaptable to these changes but if we look to the future where more than half of the drugs in development are sensitive biologics, which require cold chain and temperature monitoring services development, there is a substantial set of growing gaps and risks that will need to be addressed. The demand for precision logistics is only set to grow. Mitigation of risks, adaptability, and resiliency are key – and that is built out by taking a multi modal and digital approach.

"That’s why we are focused on simplifying and de-risking our customer’s supply chains as much as possible. When you marry control and visibility, it allows you to orchestrate an entire supply chain from end-to-end, improving collaboration and efficiency, and increasing smart, fast, sustainable decision-making based on real-time data instead of guesswork – making logistics a competitive advantage. With the right network, it also means you can effectively utilise and divert resources from one mode to another in response to disasters or disruptions."

Pharma transportation faces several challenges, including maintaining strict temperature control, complying with evolving international regulations, mitigating risks, managing complex logistics across multiple transit points, and ensuring full supply chain visibility, says Roehl of MSC Air Cargo.

"The field has evolved significantly with new technologies and a deeper understanding of industry needs. Innovations like real-time temperature and humidity monitoring, GPS tracking and automated alert systems have enhanced visibility and control, reducing the risk of temperature excursions. Specialised packaging solutions such as active, passive and hybrid packaging, improve temperature stability.

"Implementing comprehensive quality management systems and adhering to standards like IATA's Temperature Control Regulations (TCR), WHO guidelines, and EU Good Distribution Practice (GDP) guidelines have standardised processes, ensuring consistent quality and compliance. We anticipate receiving our IATA CEIV for Pharma in 2024, which will further strengthen our commitment to ensuring the safe and reliable transport of pharmaceuticals via air cargo. These advancements have greatly improved the efficiency, safety, and reliability of pharmaceutical transportation, and we look forward to further contributing to future improvements."

The global pandemic highlighted how vital air cargo is in transporting not only vaccines and medicines but also food, PPE and other essential items, adds Kohlbeck of IAG Cargo. "The industry showed how it transports vaccines at speed to destinations thousands of miles from its manufacturer. At IAG Cargo, we swiftly adapted our services, shifting from belly hold shipments on passenger services to offering a comprehensive schedule of cargo-only flights. We launched brand-new charter services to provide further capacity to meet the increasing demand from customers. To support this shift, we set up new dedicated charter teams to ensure goods were being delivered safely, securely and efficiently in times of great uncertainty.

"This process was beneficial in transporting over 20,000 tonnes of PPE and large quantities of sanitiser, ventilators and Covid-19 testing kits as well as over 10 million Covid vaccines via our dedicated cold chain product around the globe."

Logistics in general, and life science and healthcare (LSH) logistics in particular, have demonstrated remarkable resilience during the pandemic, says Weiss of DHL Global Forwarding. "In the past 100 years, pharma logistics has never been as visible and critical as it has been during this time. Not only have market and industry players recognised its importance but the general public has also become more aware of its significance.

"Simultaneously, all stakeholders involved in these critical supply and transportation chains have strengthened their already close professional relationships. This has allowed us to showcase our capabilities and excellence on a large scale. Additionally, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for digitalisation, as it has in almost all sectors. Projects and efforts to digitise certain processes in the supply chain have been accelerated.

"For us, this has been a reaffirmation of the purpose we find in our work and profession – connecting people and improving lives."

AI and pharma transportation
Artificial intelligence (AI) is currently applied in forecasting to predict volume trends and optimise staffing levels, says Behnke of Swissport. "In the broader industry, AI is enhancing risk assessments and lane qualifications, aiding decisions in packaging and logistics management."

Goba-Blé of UPS is very clear that it all comes down to control and visibility, and it’s an area in which there is increased focus. "We like to think of it as having a control tower overview of an entire supply chain. By being able to aggregate data across the entire supply chain — inventory data in warehouses, inbound and outbound shipment data, temperature data, sustainability metrics and more, you can create a comprehensive data stream from pickup to delivery that makes your supply chain “smarter” and by extension more resilient – especially if one area is to go down.

"Within that, there are also advanced technologies like robotics, automated picking systems, and track-and-trace solutions (like UPS Premier) playing a vital role as they help streamline order fulfilment, reduce errors, increase efficiency, and ensure regulatory compliance.

"In the future, we expect there to be a big focus on predictive analytics. It's not just about having data after the fact to solve past problems; it's about predicting behaviours and outcomes using AI. It can help identify patterns, foresee potential issues and guide decision-making to avoid unnecessary risks.

"To prepare for this, UPS has prioritised digitisation across all divisions, not just healthcare. We've recently hired a new Chief Intelligence Officer to spearhead our digital strategy, ensuring we are ready for the advancements in data and technology."

We will not forget one of our earlier projects after receiving our first aircraft for one of our freight forwarding customers and their shipper particularly comes to mind, aiming to optimise and provide greater ramp oversight within the pharmaceutical transportation chain. By leveraging thermal blankets, direct supervision and expediting ramp transfers and cargo loading, we successfully reduced packaging costs and minimised the time cargo was exposed to the elements. This reduction in exposure was crucial for cost savings.
Additionally, we encountered an Aircraft on Ground (AOG) event during deep winter with temperatures plummeting to minus 20 degrees Celsius, causing aircraft doors to freeze shut. The rapidresponse of our team, in coordination with the customer, ensured product integrity despite extreme conditions. We maintained the required temperature inside the aircraft for several days, ensuring the integrity of all pharmaceutical shipments. This experience underscores our commitment to excellence and reliability in pharmaceutical logistics, demonstrating our ability to solve problems quickly and effectively as they arise.
-Joern Roehl, Head of Products, Quality, and Transformation, MSC Air Cargo

MSC Air Cargo is exploring ways to improve and enhance services with AI, following a rigorous change management process to ensure compliance and uphold standards. Roehl adds: "Currently, we are investigating several AI use cases with significant potential, particularly in the pre-handling part of the customer journey. AI can streamline processes and support our staff as a virtual assistant in decision-making. It can also enhance awareness and compliance with special handling requirements for pharmaceutical and other special cargo shipments.

“While AI is still in its early stages, its benefits extend to several areas such as predictive analytics, which can foresee potential delays or disruptions and suggest alternative routes to ensure timely delivery. AI can also assist in maintaining and monitoring optimal temperature conditions by tracking real-time data and alerting staff to make necessary corrections.

"Overall, AI holds great potential to increase efficiency, reliability and safety in the transportation of pharmaceutical products, ultimately providing higher quality service to our customers."

Fabio Weiss, Senior Vice President, Products & Services, Global Air Freight, DHL Global Forwarding

Fabio Weiss, Senior Vice President, Products & Services, Global Air Freight, DHL Global Forwarding

Weiss says: "At DHL, we are elevating our pharma life science healthcare product solutions by incorporating artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT). This integration enables us to make data-driven decisions, enhance supply chain visibility, mitigate risks, and ensure superior service quality and reliability. By harnessing the power of AI and IoT, we can provide proactive and intelligent solutions to our customers in the pharmaceutical industry, ensuring the safe and efficient transportation of healthcare products. This advanced approach reflects our dedication to innovation and customer satisfaction in the healthcare sector.

"By leveraging these technologies, we aim to support specialised logistics solutions in the life science and healthcare sector as well as adapt to new therapy modes. This forward-thinking approach allows us to stay at the forefront of industry advancements and provide cutting-edge solutions to our customers."

Artificial intelligence is open to a multitude of applications, says Eric ten Kate, Global Sector Leader Healthcare, CEVA Logistics. "Different data points need to be connected - like where you connect the weather with the flight plan. Now we have computers working on all that, working out all the schedules...for example, it may be good to delay a flight..

"Going further up into the supply chain, the production aspect. If we do more and more AI and see you have a temperature excursion, you know a certain batch is not flying. You can go back to the shipper so that they can put a slot in the production cycle where that batch can be reproduced."

Jennifer Haigh, Head of Specialty Products, Americas, United Airlines Cargo adds that forecasting is something "we would like more to see of. As a passenger carrier, we can't delay a flight but we can reroute, look for alternatives using the flight schedule."

(Kate and Haigh were speaking at a webinar organised by Air Cargo Next on Air cargo and pharma - Using Technology to save lives. )

M&A in pharma logistics
va-q-tec announced the merger last year with Envirotainer, "another great brand predominantly catering to temperature control systems with active containers," says Tummalapalli.

"va-Q-tec and Envirotainer together would bring in the largest portfolio of temperature control packaging systems, both active and passive systems under one umbrella. This will give the widest range of offerings to the pharma shipper to choose from - large pallet size containers to small parcel size boxes catering to all temperature ranges. We are in the integration phase now and we will fully integrate as one company by September 2024.

"The next few years are going to be really exciting, bringing in new opportunities to the table with this merger."

UPS has a target of $20 billion topline from healthcare by 2026, and maybe, just maybe, acquisitions could play a major role here. UPS has acquired pharma logistics companies like BOMI and MNX in the recent past, clearly indicating that buyouts in the future cannot be ruled out. "Definitely!," says Goba-Blé of UPS. "The healthcare logistics market is a major strategic move for us because the demand for healthcare is growing, and healthcare companies of all sizes are rapidly innovating to keep pace with the needs of an ageing population and problems related to chronic disease. When we’re looking at the global healthcare logistics market, we expect it to grow to $152 billion in 2026. And we’re focused on the complex part of the market because it is our customers’ fastest-growing segment.

"We’ve been investing to meet the needs of this growing and innovating market for a long time, building out a ‘network within a network’ to make sure we provide the best quality, end-to-end service on the market. When you look at the market, you can see that if you’re talking about managing supply chains from clinical to commercial, we offer something that no one else can.

"Organic and inorganic growth will play a big role in helping us meet that target. Recently, we enhanced our building and fleet cold chain capabilities through the BOMI Group acquisition. To give you some context, we doubled our healthcare warehousing footprint in 2023 compared to 2020. And moving even further in specialised services, our MNX acquisition strengthens our next-flight-out opportunity. The opportunity is there, it is on us to execute."

What next for pharma logistics
MSC Air Cargo is in the earlier stages of entering the sector, and therefore actively expanding capabilities and presence on platforms like Validaide. Additionally, the company is also increasing participation in industry working groups including Pharma.aero, PharmacomItalia, the Cold Chain Association and IATA Health Care Working Group to support the growing demand for high quality pharmaceutical logistics.

"Behind every tablet, vial and vaccine, there exists an intricate web of logistics and transportation that ensures these life-saving medicines reach their intended recipients safely and securely,” says Kohlbeck of IAG Cargo . “The delivery of essential items such as pharmaceuticals comes with its own set of challenges and relies on key players in the industry and innovative technology solutions to provide an efficient and smooth service.

"Moreover, the pharmaceutical landscape is witnessing a seismic shift with the increased approval of cell and gene therapies. These innovative treatments hold tremendous potential but require an entirely new level of precision and speed in transportation. This is often due to the lifecycle of these therapies and the controlled environment they require to remain usable. We’re seeing a growth in transporting personalised medication from areas of the world such as Europe and America to locations around the globe. This is due to the pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities that exist in these countries, and the demographic requirement for tailored therapeutics.

"Ensuring a temperature-controlled, swift, and secure transportation for the pharmaceutical industry remains a crucial aspect of our services through our Constant Climate offering."

DHL is establishing a dedicated network of sector product experts, bringing together the best talent in the industry. The commitment reinforces DHL's ability to provide exceptional logistics solutions in the life science and healthcare sector. Weiss says: "Alongside talent acquisition, we are investing in network infrastructure and IT solutions to ensure quality and compliance with industry standards, incorporating the regulatory requirements for computerised systems to ensure data quality, integrity and accuracy. These investments are aimed at delivering excellence and innovative solutions that meet the unique requirements of the industry."

va-Q-tec has been a pioneer in innovation and promotion of advanced passive systems for delivering high performance thermal insulation and temperature control, says Tummalapalli. "While vacuum insulation material (VIP) is the highest degree of thermal insulation material, phase change material (PCM) is a refrigerant which maintains the temperature as required by the product inside the package. Advanced passive systems have been improvising quite rapidly through innovation in PCM technology. In view of the negative impacts of dry ice, innovation in PCM technology is bringing in relief. va-Q-tec has been leading these efforts and have already launched a PCM that delivers very accurate temperatures starting from body temperatures to deep frozen with the help of multiple configurations. Now, we have even launched a PCM that practically replaces the use of dry ice and delivers a performance of -67 deg C. We have received great testimonials from pharma shippers, specialty courier companies, 3PL and freight forwarders alike."

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