Meeting the Challenges of Cold-Chain Logistics Head-on

Smart labels provide brilliantly versatile and transformative asset-tracking options for key product types

The pandemic has made us all take notice when a vaccine, a ‘life-and-death’ solution for a worldwide health crisis, comes with a built-in logistical challenge: the need for maintaining a constant temperature, in this case sub-zero, for quality and efficacy. End-point storage, tractor-trailer road transportation, ships and aircraft all face the same challenge: adjusting what would normally be a typical transportation environment to the demands of what the industry now more accurately calls “cold chain logistics.”

Pharmaceuticals and chemicals, as well as food-and-beverage (F&B), are all high-growth, high-value sectors demanding supply chains capable of accurately tracking products, materials, and perishables worldwide – all in accordance with key environmental variables, precise schedules, and complex logistics. Independent research estimates that, overall, the global cold chain market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.8% from 2021 to 2028, driving the penetration of connected devices and automation of refrigerated warehouses around the globe.*

The need for cold chain logistics has existed for some time but has increased exponentially based on several new products and trends across many major industries. For example, in addition to vaccines being temperature-sensitive, glaucoma eye drops, asthma inhalers, even insulin also have temperature requirements during shipping. This makes cold chain central to the efficient function of the global medical sector.

Establishing reliable cold chains that promote good hygiene and prevent incidents, guarantee that products whether they are fresh tomatoes, frozen fish or dairy produce always arrive in good condition and are safe for consumption.

Geographical cold-chain trends
North America has traditionally loomed largest in the cold-chain sector, but today the Asia Pacific region is increasingly anticipated to be the fastest-growing regional cold-chain market owing to increasing government investments for logistics infrastructure development and penetration of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS).

China, long adept at transporting agricultural produce and foodstuffs over long distances, is having to respond to a new set of demands from its burgeoning middle classes. These increasingly wealthy consumers now make purchasing decisions based on the origin and proven quality of the food items, including baby formula, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Further, a surprisingly high consumer consciousness around how their products are packaged, processed, and stored has led to a newfound premium being placed on these technological advancements to cold-chain infrastructure. For example, when rumors emerged last summer indicating a localized COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing was linked to frozen imported salmon, very public inspections of the supply chain were initiated and alleviated suspicions of frozen produce.**

The role of technology in the cold chain
Molex has seen a marked shift in customer conversations across global industries. Time and again, these organizations have identified a need for tracking and monitoring that is relatively low cost and straightforward to implement, while maximizing the amount and timeliness of data available over an ever widening front-end to back-end communication infrastructure.

This situation defines today’s ultimate challenge; the complex performance demands now being placed on cold chain logistics worldwide. Smart labels will provide low-cost, safely disposable alternatives and supplements to current traditional cold chain monitoring modules which in many instances, are suitable for palleted cargo, but not suitable or economically efficient to track individual products over the “last mile” of end-point distribution.

Smart Labels: Taking the lead in cold-chain and …
The concept of ‘smart labels’ represents the next generation of data informatics initiated by barcoding and RFID-based solutions. In particular, the term labels implies that they need to be lightweight, cost-effective and disposable. And the need to satisfy these new requirements has inspired innovation in flexible printed-circuit solutions. Thin and flexible, with the ability to attach complex electronic components, they will support the trend toward easier to use, lower cost and more environmentally-friendly data acquisition.

The demand for cold-chain logistics monitoring options is only expected to increase as pharmaceuticals and F&B undergo rapid global expansion, but smart labels will be required in asset tracking, medtech, structural health and building monitoring, and many more industries. They will all benefit from more detailed informatics, potentially combining historical and real-time data about where an individual product has been, what it has experienced during its life of transportation and use or alerting monitors to deviations from set parameters such as location, temperature, shock, light or other environmental conditions.

Aircraft safety is a case in point. In the event of a spillage in the hold, for example, the airline needs to know what’s in the containers without having to open them. With smart labels, these details of the cargo could be readily available in real time. 

Close customer collaboration is a decades-old tradition at Molex as we believe in creating connections for life, this helps us define solutions that are right for the job, when every job is unique. Molex’s investment in innovation puts companies in a position to confront these challenges in 2021 and beyond. We continue to advance smart label capabilities with more complex printed silver circuitry on polyester, which may at some point be replaced with ink on paper, and are working with partners to attach smaller, thinner and flexible electronic components as well as environmentally-friendly ‘thin-film’ battery technology. And these transformative asset tracking solutions will continue to evolve and incorporate new technologies designed to enable customers to deliver their perishable, volatile, and valuable products with a high degree of reliability and in a way that’s cost-effective and conveniently disposable.

Business Manager Americas Region, Printed Circuit Solutions