Delicate air cargo and pharmaceutical products must arrive at their destination in one piece, and therefore packaging systems are critical to ensure their safe delivery. Stan Abbott looks closer at the packaging market.

    Specialist packaging for air cargo, such as scientific instruments, calibration tools and pharma products, can be sourced either from the shipper or from several highly specialist companies that have built a business precisely around this demand.

    Global logistics giant DHL is no stranger to providing specialist packaging, according to David Bang, CEO at LifeConEx and global head of DHL Temperature Management Solutions.

    Volga Dnepr

    Bang says that with more than 1,000 certified life sciences specialists, based in 117 Good Distribution Practice-compliant (GDP) stations around the world, DHL offers ‘Air Thermonet’ and ‘LifeConEx’ services primarily for time and temperature-sensitive life sciences and healthcare shipments.

    DHL Air Thermonet offers temperature-controlled life sciences shipments and delivers regulatory compliance with higher visibility – supported by the company’s GDP-compliant global network, alongside proactive monitoring and intervention.

    LifeConEx, the temperature management specialist owned by DHL, enables clients of all sizes to transport temperature-sensitive products globally in the most optimal and efficient way possible, via an optimised temperature-controlled chain, claims the company.

    DHL uses its data analytics capability to help customers choose the best type of packaging for particular shipments, bearing in mind cost and speed. These range from single or multi-use passive insulated packaging services to large active cool containers.

    Air cargo, specialist packaging, delicate cargo
    Bang says data analytics capability can help with choosing the best type of packaging

    The company enjoys IATA Regulated Agent Screener status, says Bang, but GDP compliance at many stations adds greater visibility, alongside control of sensitive products.

    “This is because we can perform screening in a properly regulated environment for product safety and integrity,” says Bang. For example, DHL Global Forwarding in San Juan is the only freight forwarder in Puerto Rico with large dedicated 2°C to 8°C and 15°C to 25°C cool pharmaceuticals chambers, as well as security screening status.

    “Our network itself gives us a strong competitive advantage because customers want to partner up with a provider like DHL, which has a consistent quality system in both manufacturing and consuming countries.”

    It’s a network reinforced by DHL’s relationship with its key carriers, incentivised by the company’s own accreditation awards system for pharmaceuticals carriage, most recently won by Cathay Pacific Cargo, Lufthansa Cargo, Emirates SkyCargo and Swiss WorldCargo.

    Bang has noticed over the past two to three years that customers are expressing an increasing need for data analytics and IoT (Internet of Things) capabilities, especially with regard to risk management and supply chain optimisation.

    “For instance, based on very complex big data, our IT system and our data analytics platform, we can offer many powerful insights that lead to more predictive and proactive measures. Because of advanced cloud-based data processing power, some data insights are now possible that simply weren’t so a few years ago.”

    Air cargo, delicate cargo, temperature-controlled cargo
    Consistent thermal protection and insulation performance is essential

    In a practical sense, this means, for example, that advanced weather data can predict temperature changes that might affect the safety of the cargo. Also, historic data can be used to predict temperature changes that might not otherwise have been anticipated.

    Peli BioThermal Ltd, the UK division of Minnesota- based Pelican BioThermal Inc, provides the life sciences industry with a comprehensive range of patented and thermal protection packaging for the safe transport of pharmaceuticals, clinical trials, diagnostics, tissue, vaccines and blood supplies.

    The company has been supplying single and reusable bulk shippers for air cargo applications for several years now – these are its Crēdo Xtreme, CoolPall and Vertos products.

    “We have been building a ‘rental fleet’ over the past three years,” explains Dominic Hyde, who became vice president Crēdo On Demand a year ago. “We offer a wide range of single-use and reusable passive shippers, from parcel size up to pallet-accepting models. The majority of these products use PCM (phase change material) coolants, which give excellent, consistent thermal protection and insulation performance.

    Hyde says the products have a high performance, they are durable and payload space-volume efficient, and are used throughout the pharmaceutical and clinical trials sectors, as well as for military, and emergency and first responder applications.

    In a competitive market place, Peli Bio Thermal sees its rental services business as a key component in maintaining its competitive edge by making its customers ‘owner-operators’ and delivering significant cost savings. In 2018, the company saw growth of 90% in its temperature- controlled fleet size, and a similar rise in revenues.

    It now supplies eight out of ten of the world’s big pharmaceutical companies. But the bedrock of its businesses is its principal products – the Crēdo Cube. Hyde believes it is the clinical market leader for high-performance vacuum insulated shippers (containers) with phase change material.

    The right packaging materials are crucial for different cargoes

    “PCMs melt and solidify at a specific temperature, so are capable of storing and releasing large amounts of energy. Heat is absorbed or released when these materials change from solid to liquid and vice versa,” he explains.

    Ranger Aerospace LLC, based in Greenville, SC, has been in the air cargo support business for 35 years, having begun life in horse transport in New York.

    Its ACL (Airline Container Leasing) Airshop business has over recent years been transformed into a fast-growing technology-driven worldwide logistics expert for ULDs from pallets to containers. “And,” says CEO Steve Townes, “we still transport horses and other live animals, in addition to many other air cargo products.”

    What sets the company apart, says Townes, is that it is vertically integrated. “We manufacture, sell, lease, repair, and logistically manage ULDs.” Additionally, the company claims to have been first to market with some of its IT and other technological cargo-management developments.

    In a year that will see the opening in Greenville of a brand new manufacturing facility, Townes is upbeat: “We predict that air cargo volumes will grow worldwide in 2019 despite the trade wars and geopolitical obstacles that are making today’s headlines – more people are buying, and more boxes are flying.

    “Goods transported by air, such as high value equipment like computers, phones, consumer electronics, and pharmaceuticals, are some of the fastest-growing trade channels, and we are serving those channels more and more.

    Recent innovations in ULD tracking, notes Townes, include the implementation of ‘CORE’ Insight’s Bluetooth logistics technology for key carriers and cargo customers. A vertically integrated operation, ACL Airshop manufactures air cargo products at its FAA-approved production facilities in South Carolina and manages a robust supply chain in the US, Germany, China and Taiwan.

    Townes continues: “Our own fleet of ULDs is substantially larger than the ULD fleets of most major airlines, and one of the largest independent ULD fleets in the world. And we have steadily invested in a full array of software and systems tools to allow our airline customers to become more efficient and cost-effective.

    “Three years ago we said we would double the company’s size, and now we are likely to double the business again in the next few years.” Frankfurt-based DoKaSch Temperature Solutions is a family-owned company on a similar growth trajectory, as it looks to significantly expand its fleet of climate-controlled Opticooler air cargo containers in response to rising demand for pharma transport.

    Containers for temperature-sensitive air freight must be kept within strict limits

    The Opticooler is entirely designed, manufactured and maintained in the company’s own facilities, and is used by 20 airline partners around the world. Managing director Andreas Seitz says DoKaSch originally developed its containers for temperature-sensitive air freight shipments almost 15 years ago.

    “Our climate-controlled containers are masterpieces of engineering,” he reckons. “We provide our services to the pharmaceutical industry for their most temperature-sensitive, precious, and often live-saving products, such as for oncology, rare diseases, vaccines or insulin.”

    The Opticooler provides transport conditions for shipments across continents and climate zones or during unexpected events, for goods that must be kept within a very strict temperature range.

    “Safe and reliable transport is of the essence, as the value of such a shipment can be worth millions in monetary value. Once a pharma shipper has chosen Opticoolers for its shipments, we then rent our units to our airline partners.

    Seitz says while most of the Opticoolers are used in the pharmaceuticals sector, other clients are looking for absolute protection for specialist high- tech products, such as equipment for spacecraft, or optical instruments and calibration devices.

    Battery-powered cooling compressors and heaters, and self-regulating temperature control ensure internal temperatures consistently stay well within range, says Seitz. Temperatures between 2°C and 8°C or 15°C to 25°C, for example, can be maintained, regardless of the ambient temperatures that may vary between minus -30°C during a Canadian winter or 50°C in summer in the Middle East.

    “The global market for pharmaceuticals, many of which are temperature-sensitive, is growing steadily and we are optimistic that the demand for reliable high-end transport solutions will also continue to rise. A testament to the growth in demand for temperature-sensitive packaging, the company has expanded its US operations by setting up DoKaSch Americas in San Francisco.

    In many cases, packaging materials can create unwelcome waste, particularly from an environmental perspective. In September last year, Softbox, a temperature control packaging systems firm based in South Carolina announced it had launched a new ‘Green Recycling Service’ across the US and Canada to provide a ‘hassle-free’ way to dispose of temperature control packaging waste and improve eco-sustainability performance.

    Instead of disposing of these pharmaceutical packaging components along with the rest of their scrap destined for landfill, companies, according to Softbox, can now have these components recycled into materials that will be used to manufacture new products for other industries – the entire process is managed by Softbox.

    Ideally, such and other similar initiatives could potentially reduce the cost biopharma companies are paying today for non-sustainable waste and help them achieve their own sustainability objectives.