Full shipment visibility across supply chains has been an elusive goal for decades. Legacy electronic data interchange (EDI) transaction sets in use since the 1980s were designed around verifying completion of component “transactions” in the order-to-pay cycle, leaving critical reporting gaps as goods are in transit.
A lot can happen in those gaps, from collision damage, to breakdowns or weather delays, to cargo loss or theft. Shippers of high-value urgent, fragile and perishable cargoes need continuous monitoring of shipment location, condition and security. They need to know, preferably in real time, when goods will not arrive on time and in full (OTIF) — a key performance measure — in order to take fast corrective action.
Sensor technologies enhance visibility, but until recently, affordable track-and-trace solutions have been mainly passive. That is, data recorders placed inside containers, trailers, railcars and/or SKUs record shipment conditions in real time, end-to-end, but are unable to transmit the data, which is downloaded on completion of the shipment. Active sensors which report data as it’s collected have been available but not widely used, due to their higher cost and shorter battery life.
Advances in sensors, wireless communications, location-based systems and batteries — in combination with the data processing power, storage capacity, process automation and analytics of cloud computing — now make possible active platform solutions that collect, interpret and share location and condition data across the end-to-end supply chain in real time. This offers shippers, manufacturers, distributors and logistics services providers continuous, real-time visibility, with actionable alerts, to intercept, redirect or order replacement products to meet OTIF, service level agreement and regulatory compliance targets. Analytics applied to current and historical shipment data provide valuable operations insights for planning and for measuring performance.
No sector has a greater stake in these advances than pharmaceuticals and life sciences. A range of medicines and biologics must be shipped within tightly controlled temperature or humidity ranges; some are also highly sensitive to sudden shock or exposure to light. A single damaged, refused shipment can trigger a write-off in millions of dollars. Delays or damage affect a supplier’s OTIF score and reputation, costing future sales.
Perishable medicines with limited options for storage are typically made to order, meaning that replacement orders for damaged shipments can cause unintended inventory dislocations. As the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated with medical equipment, supplies and tests, as well as vaccines, an inability to gather meaningful insights from shipment data can trigger the widely reported “bullwhip effect” of alternating shortages, overstocking and supply chain gridlock. Finally, security threats and compliance issues around provenance and quality control are omnipresent concerns. It is not only dollars at stake in pharma but, at times, patient lives.
Recent chaos and uncertainty make a strong use case for real-time, end-to-end visibility at scale in the pharma cold chain.
“For the last two years the norm has been delay; the norm has been loss,” says Alex Guillen, director of sales, life sciences and pharma at Boston-based supply chain visibility platform Tive. “And now we see the Ukraine-Russia situation. It isn’t stopping; it’s one thing after another.“
Guillen sees strong demand ahead for smarter, more predictive analytics to spot problems in areas like packaging and carrier handling; platform collaboration to aggregate and customize data solutions; and concierge monitoring and rapid response services when exceptions arise.
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