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The Current State of the Supply Chain and Disruptions Affecting the Cold Chain

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Vials of COVID-19 vaccine are shown in a frigid environment with frost.

Key Takeaways:
–   The usual supply chain disruption affects the cold supply chain
–   The stakes are much higher for products that require a temperature-controlled environment
–   The semi-conductor shortage is one thing, but shock and temperature in transport after production exacerbates the problem
–   Technology can answer these unique problems in the form of precision environmental monitoring and data collecting instruments

Continuous monitoring of real-time data is what powers the cold supply chain

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world on its head and snarled supply chains. The cold chain – the transport of temperature-sensitive products – leaped into the fray with the responsibility of transporting tiny vials of vaccine for thousands of miles while keeping them at the –94 degrees Fahrenheit (–70 degrees Celsius) required. Transportation methods varied, including refrigerated trucks, railcars, cargo ships, and air transport, but one thing they all needed was a way to ensure the integrity of the shipments.

That’s where temperature data collection comes in. Maintaining correct temperatures is crucial during transit or storage of many vaccines and other medical supplies, as well as semiconductors, chemicals, and vital electric components for the aerospace industry. Beyond temperature, some items – including semiconductors – must be carefully packaged and monitored for temperature fluctuations and moisture.

Because of strict temperature requirements for COVID-19 vaccines, the cold supply chain has come into sharp focus. Speed was of the essence, but even more important was to safeguard what is transported through cold supply chains, especially in pharmaceuticals. 

When one thing goes wrong in the cold chain, it can have a ripple effect that could cost lives. The stakes are high, which means real-time environmental monitoring must be included in the modern cold chain. Continue reading to learn more about the current state of the cold supply chain in an era of unprecedented supply chain disruptions.

The current state of the supply chain – a mixed bag

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the supply chain. While some things can’t be predicted, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a second COVID-related shutdown in China, supply chain disruptions appear to be starting to let up. Let’s first talk about what’s helping, and then what’s currently happening that is perpetuating disruption. 

The good

Although what’s historically been considered normal is still far off, there are signs that supply chain pressures are easing. For example, the New York Fed’s global supply chain pressure index fell in July for the third straight month, reaching the lowest point since January 2021, down 57%. This is because:

  • Shipping rates are falling
  • Consumer spending on durable goods has slowed
  • Vessels queuing at the port of Los Angeles is down 75% since January 2022
  • Delivery times for air cargo are improving
  • Europe-based manufacturers report that production is no longer limited by a lack of materials and equipment

But things are stirring in geopolitics that could upend the supply chain again, and some ongoing problems are still in play. Let’s take a look.

The bad

China’s military drills around Taiwan are the largest ever as tensions have increased since Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Taiwan over the objections of the Chinese government. These drills are taking place among some of the busiest shipping routes on earth for semiconductors and electronic equipment, as well as a key artery for natural gas. These maneuvers could disrupt 18 international routes in total, and even a small disruption could mean high costs. 

Of course, most of the current supply chain disruptions can be traced back to the pandemic. First, the economy was essentially put on hold. Shipping and transport businesses reduced staff and operating hours, ports became understaffed, and there were numerous factory shutdowns. Demand outpaced supply.

Fast forward to today and consumer demand is still up, and supplies are still low. Even if companies can meet consumer demand, there’s a shortage of about 80,000 truck drivers in the U.S. This means slowed deliveries not only to consumers, but to companies awaiting semiconductors, food, and medical and pharmaceutical supplies. 

There’s also:

  • Suspended production in Shanghai because of power rationing
  • A pileup of shipping containers in Germany
  • Lithium, which is needed for battery production, is closed in Sichuan, a leading producer, again due to power rationing
  • Golden Week in China in October will mean canceled sailings, which limits ship capacity

Further supply chain disruptions are sure to occur. For the cold chain, the impact of delays along the supply chain may be significant. 

The impacts and challenges of supply chain disruption on the cold supply chain

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the cold supply chain. If food is improperly transported, people can be made ill. If pharmaceuticals, like vaccines, aren’t kept at proper temperature, they’re no longer viable. Semiconductors facing variable temperatures and movement could be rendered useless, as would some other electronic components. 

The challenges of the cold chain include the risk posed by delays, changing global regulations, a lack of uniform standards among trucks, and poor packaging. But fluctuating temperatures are a major issue. Different products need different solutions, but they all need a way to monitor environmental conditions. That’s where technology comes in. 

Temperature issues in the pharmaceutical supply chain

The pharmaceutical supply chain can be completely compromised by incorrect temperatures. The decomposition that takes place can render drugs ineffective, they may become toxic, or they could even cause death. The challenge to the cold supply chain is that many pharmaceuticals must be continuously kept between two degrees and eight degrees Celsius (35 to 46 °F) or between 15 degrees to 25 degrees Celsius (59 to 77 °F). And the COVID-19 vaccine has to be kept much, much colder. 

The cold chain is filled with expensive equipment and strict temperature requirements. Pharmaceutical products are only one part of the chain, albeit a crucial one. Much of the critical equipment and technology cannot operate without an essential component that has lately received a lot of headlines and requires delicate handling in the cold chain: semiconductors.

Semiconductors in the cold supply chain

The semiconductor shortage has been frequently in the news, with much of the reporting centered on how this is affecting the production of cars, computers, phones, tablets, TVs, and other technology.  The semiconductor market is improving, but the shortage isn’t expected to end before 2024. 

What hasn’t been discussed is how semiconductors must be shipped and where the cold chain plays a part. Semiconductor shipping requires shippers and transporters to take precautions – if they’re damaged during shipping, semiconductors can be rendered useless. The top risk factors include:

-Vibration. Many electronic components are tiny. They also must be placed with extreme precision, which means it doesn’t take much to knock something out of alignment. Unacceptable shock and vibration levels during transit can mean damage and failure.

Shock and vibration are normal during transit but can move beyond acceptable levels due to speed, maneuvers, terrain, air turbulence, and sea conditions. Whether semiconductors are being shipped via air, ship, railroad, or truck, the levels of shock and vibration must be monitored.

-Excess heat. Thermal overstress can cause semiconductors to fail. This is because excess heat can char plastics, melt materials, damage semiconductor dies, and may cause other types of damage. Semiconductors are sensitive to both cold and heat, and temperature fluctuation must be avoided. Humidity is another enemy, particularly if the items weren’t packaged properly. 

This is just a brief overview of two essential items that require careful monitoring in the cold chain. Careful packaging in validated dry ice shipping boxes goes a long way to protect temperature-sensitive products, but the need for monitoring temperature and shock depends on sophisticated technology, so don’t ship without it.

Marathon Products: Stay Connected

Marathon Products is a leading manufacturer and distributor of precision environmental monitoring devices for temperature, humidity, and vibration for the life sciences and semiconductor industries. Our sensors are highly reliable and can be used for low- or high-temperature applications.

All our devices are 100% tested to ensure reliability, are FDA 21cfr compliant, and we have a no-questions-asked return policy. We have monitoring devices for every cold supply chain need at competitive prices, so don’t ship without us! 

For more information, send us an email at or call us at 800-858-6872.

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