The High Impact & Potential of Cold Chain Monitoring

With a multitude of new medicines and vaccines requiring transportation and storage in very specific environments and increasing global distribution of food products, cold chain monitoring is already making a real impact on public health and safety.

Medical worker, nurse, doctor holding a portable refrigerator bag in the hospital.The COVID-19 vaccines bring worldwide attention to cold chain logistics. The size of shipments and the temperatures at which the vaccines need to be transported and stored have created challenges, especially in low-income countries that don’t have extensive cold chain infrastructure.

Even during normal times, cold chain is crucial to worldwide healthcare because noncompliant temperatures and harmful light or humidity exposure can affect a medicine’s efficacy and even its safety. In fact, maintaining the required environment is so important that the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), an agency that supports child health and nutrition and the world’s largest provider of vaccines, goes to great lengths to provide reliable cold chain infrastructure to ensure health workers can safely deliver vaccines to children in even the most remote places.

Protecting Medicines Through the Last Mile

Cold chain is an area in which smart sensing labels have the potential to make a huge impact. Smart sensing labels collect data about the condition of transported food or medicine, even in those locations that might have a less-reliable cold chain infrastructure. For example, medicines in remote places can be transported only so far by refrigerated vehicles. The last leg of the journey, or “the last mile,” entails placing the medicine in a cooler and then on the back of a motorcycle, in a motorboat or in a package to be carried by foot. If the medicine is packaged with a smart sensing label, the healthcare provider receiving the delivery can use a smartphone, tablet or other device to scan the label and assess whether the required temperature and other parameters have been maintained during the journey, thus ensuring its reliability and efficacy, before administering it to patients.

Improving Well-Being with a Safe Food Supply

Food safety is another area where cold chain monitoring is critical. According to the World Health Organization, each year around 600 million people fall ill due to food contamination, and 420,000 die. Even more tragically, 40% of these illnesses affect children under the age of 5, with 125,000 dying from contaminated food every year.

Pallet with fresh fish at a wholesale market.

Smart labels are disposable, unlike larger, bulkier monitoring devices that need to be returned. In doing so, they can be used on globally distributed food products where returning monitors, such as RFID tags, might not be feasible or practical. Smart sensing labels identify when food products have lapsed from temperature requirements and alert the customer and/or seller at the destination that spoilage is a threat, enabling them to dispose of the food. Further, smart sensing labels can alert suppliers to the conditions while food is still in transport, giving transportation personnel a chance to adjust the environment before spoilage occurs.

In short, data gathered by sensors in smart labels holds the potential to refine our global food supply chain, making food safer and reducing waste. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, approximately a third of food meant for human consumption—or about 1.3 billion tons—is lost or wasted each year. If we lower this number, we automatically increase global food supply. Likewise, if even just 5 to 10% of pharmaceuticals are saved from spoilage due to better monitoring during shipping, healthcare around the world could be transformed. 

Making Supply Chains Smarter with Smart Sensing Labels

Smart labels are the next generation of monitoring after RFID and bar codes, and continued adoption of smart labels will elevate their mainstream status. So far, early adoption has been focused on pharmaceuticals, but as development drives down costs, smart labels are starting to monitor food as well. The pharmaceutical and food and beverage industries need a cost-effective method for measuring temperature and also, potentially, GPS locations, shock and vibration impacts, and pressure, to ensure and prove product integrity, safety and security.

In response to this market need, Molex is closely collaborating with pharmaceutical customers to design temperature-monitoring smart labels tailored to their specifications and wireless requirements. In addition to advanced monitoring capabilities, the labels must have a low profile and be flexible enough to look and perform like a typical label while still being robust. Designing to these specifications requires Molex to leverage its vast experience in designing and producing printed circuits. The continued advancements in print capabilities for batteries and other electronics enable the development of truly disposable circuits, opening the doors to a whole new world for smart labels and their benefits.