IoT in Cold Chain Efficiency: Driving Future Innovations & Cost-Saving Initiatives

October 8, 2019

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that we lose 30-40 percent of our food as a result of failures along the cold chain. In this chain, food is refrigerated from harvest to delivery, but often not everything goes smoothly.

Risks Along the Cold Chain: Food, Pharmaceuticals and More

There are various methods of keeping products cool, and each carries risks. Refrigerated containers can fail. Time-sensitive containers that use insulation or passive cooling methods can prove inadequate if delays are encountered. When a temperature fluctuation does occur, entire shipments may be ruined, sometimes without the distributor even knowing.

Worse, entire cargo containers can go missing and may never be recovered.

These complications go beyond food products and also include pharmaceuticals, vaccines, botanicals and other temperature-sensitive goods. It is estimated that weaknesses in the cold chain cost $35 billion a year in pharmaceuticals. This includes an approximate 25% loss of vaccine integrity.

While alarms exist to alert operators if the temperature integrity of a storage unit has failed, IIoT can report data that tells an operator of a temperature fluctuation before a failure, allowing for swift action that could save products. Having data for every moment of storage also prevents the loss of undamaged items that are thrown out as a safety precaution due to the possibility of unacceptable temperature breaches.

Transportation Along the Cold Chain

The cold chain includes several modes of transportation, including ground, air, sea and rail. Often, distributors only have data when a shipment arrives at checkpoints, such as when loaded onto a plane before takeoff or when unloaded after landing. But with IIoT, sensors can tell distributors where their cargo is at any given moment, such as tracking a flight’s entire path. This can help to reduce lost shipments.

This type of data can also be used if a product’s integrity is at risk. A vehicle can be redirected through a faster route or to a closer customer who can accept the product. In another scenario, if transportation breaks down, calculations can be made on the closest available conveyance to rescue at-risk cargo. Data gathered long term and across multiple shipments can detect patterns and allow distributors to avoid high traffic areas or common waves of extreme heat or cold weather.

Surprisingly, the last mile of delivery can be the greatest challenge. This occurs as a vehicle approaches its destination but still must make it through traffic, park, handle any fulfillment requirements, and unpack its load. This final stretch can be surprisingly slow and expensive – up to 28% of a delivery’s total cost.

A number of solutions are being considered to lower last-mile costs. One of these involves a shift to more sustainable energies. Solar panels can take the strain off truck battery and HVAC systems. Switching from diesel to natural gas can yield long-term savings. Fully electric or hybrid vehicles are also in development.

More smart innovations, aided by IIoT, include self-driving vehicles that promote improved fuel efficiency, less required maintenance and fewer traffic accidents. Multi-compartment trucks allow the transport of items with varied temperature needs in one vehicle, eliminating multiple separate deliveries by single-temperature trucks. Similar consolidation practices aid distribution and cut costs by moving multiple deliveries into a single truck so long as those deliveries all happen within the same region.

Drones for Increased Efficiency

A new tool in the shipping industry, also aided by IIoT, is drones. Though not yet officially implemented in the US, drones have been tested for delivering medicines and personal packages. Plans are in motion to develop larger drones capable of transporting up to 500 pounds of cargo. Drones are also being tested for warehouse management. Their ability to easily reach precarious locations eliminates safety concerns for human workers. They can also perform inventory management faster than human workers, increasing efficiency.

Though only time will tell exactly what technologies take the lead, one thing is certain. The cold chain is changing, and IIoT is making those changes possible.