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One of the truly amazing things about supply chain visibility is how adaptive this technology is to the needs of the industry you’re in. Nowhere are the requirements stricter than in the pharmaceutical and life sciences industry. Not only are these products often more sensitive to temperature changes than the typical cold chain shipment — they’re also much more valuable. Both in terms of dollars spent and lives saved, losing a shipment due to an exception in temperature tolerance is unacceptable. Especially in the middle of a pandemic, with life-saving vaccines shipping out every day, the margin for error within this sector has never been tighter.

Because of this, the need for precise real-time status information at all levels of the supply chain is paramount. For pharmaceutical companies, many of whom are involved in shipping highly sensitive vaccines, lives depend on their ability to reliably monitor the temperature, location, humidity and even the light exposure of their products in transit, and to react instantly and effectively when a tolerance is breached. Whether it’s vaccines or biologic drugs, here are some of the technology needs that are becoming more critical than ever for the pharmaceutical supply chain.

Temperature Tracking and Beyond

One of the biggest differences between transporting medicine, as opposed to other temperature-sensitive products such as food and beverages, is that pharmaceutical products often have an extraordinarily precise window of temperature tolerance. In the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19, for instance, vials must be both transported and stored within the range of -80 and -60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because of this, it’s important for any company tasked with transporting and storing life-saving medications to closely monitor temperature thresholds for the duration of the product’s transit. Considering that the total value of these shipments often approaches hundreds of millions in dollar value, losing a shipment en route to its destination is a major hit, both economically and in terms of the lives that could be put at risk.

Simply monitoring the temperature itself is not enough, however. In addition to being able to set a specific range that may vary by shipment, pallet or SKU, it’s also important that today’s visibility technology be able to specify the immediacy with which stakeholders are notified of a shipment falling out of temperature compliance. In other industries, it’s often acceptable for shipments to fall out of tolerance for short periods of time. For vaccines, that sort of timeframe is absolutely unacceptable; many companies in the life sciences industries need tools that can notify them immediately when a refrigerated shipment fails, so that they can take action in time to save the shipment.

If all of this sounds complex, consider that temperature is just one of the many different environmental factors that could have a major impact on the safety and efficacy of a vaccine in transit. Depending on the product, factors such as light exposure, altitude, humidity, shock and many others can physically impact the quality of the product, and must be monitored as closely as temperature.

Being able to achieve this often requires an IoT-neutral approach. FourKites, for example, integrates with dozens of different IoT providers that each provide a small piece of the puzzle for an individual load. This allows us to pull all of the relevant environmental information into a single pane of glass, without forcing stakeholders to tab between interfaces or waste time trying to track down the information needed to ensure the health of their loads. FourKites’ partnership with Tive, Inc., is just the most recent example of one of these partnerships.

Precision From First Mile to Last

In addition to tracking real-time environmentals, it’s critical to also monitor the underlying performance of individual carriers, lanes and facilities. Not only does this allow pharma shippers to be instantly notified if there’s ever a breakdown, theft or major delay in one of their shipments, but it also reveals a wealth of underlying data that can be used to further optimize their distribution pattern and ensure that shipments arrive on time. Moreover, data sets can be combined to create a complete, historical picture of individual loads, lanes and carriers, in addition to network performance over time, predictive insights into future performance, and recommendations on how to improve both individual load performance and overall customer service levels.

From a product roadmap standpoint, our philosophy has always been one of customer-led development. Many of our greatest products and innovations have come directly from our customers. When you’re talking about delivering vaccines in the middle of a pandemic, our customers quickly made it clear to us that tracking the last mile is more important than ever. Companies have to know at a glance the status of shipments and when they are going to arrive, regardless of the mode, facility or carrier.

To enable this, FourKites pulls in everything from total-level scanning, to multi-stop electronic point of delivery (ePOD) information — and we do so for every purchase order, tote and pallet. We then run all of this data through our analytics and machine learning engine, generating predictive recommendations and sending out any load-level notifications or alerts. This allows us to provide high-confidence ETAs for our customers’ critical deliveries  — many of which are enroute to pharmacies and fulfillment centers.

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Clearly, there’s a constellation of factors that stand to impact the safety, efficacy and timeliness of pharmaceutical shipments. Where before, companies were forced to guess at the impact of these varied factors on their shipments, today’s real-time visibility technology enables companies to attain a level of precision and predictability that allows for improved efficiency and higher customer satisfaction.

By combining real-time environmental data with insights into transit times and predictive ETAs, we are able to create a more accurate, timely and holistic picture of the supply chain than ever before. From the first to the last mile, end-to-end visibility is more important to the pharmaceutical sector than just about any other industry, and we’re proud to work with some of the biggest players in the space to make sure that their goods arrive safely and securely.

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