Making the Switch from Air to Ocean

September 18, 2018

Value of Thermal Blankets Verified as an Integral Part of the Transition from Air to Ocean

For years, the global biopharma industry has depended on air cargo to deliver finished products around the world, despite the fact that many of their raw materials and APIs were being delivered by ocean freight. The key differences have been: the high value of the temperature-sensitive, biologic finished products (with a single pallet potentially worth millions of dollars) and the predictability and short time frame of air delivery—hours or days instead of weeks.

But air cargo is arguably the single most-expensive form of cargo transport—as much as 4X what ocean logistics cost. In the early 2010s, a Pharmaceutical Company took on a project to evaluate the use of ocean-borne, refrigerated containers as an alternative to air cargo. After exhaustive testing—using the available returned product (that had been withdrawn from distribution) as a near-identical stand-in for actual product—they made the switch in 2015. Since then, it has been saving millions of dollars in shipping costs annually. “There has not been one reject shipment”, says their quality manager, “and in some ways, oceanborne can be a less severe form of delivery.”

Key to this major undertaking is the use of thermal blankets. In fact, the Pharma Company is using reefer containers and blankets exclusively—no other insulation is necessary for the palletized shipments.

According to the Quality team, “It was a hard sell” to get the company to consider the air-to-ocean switch. To address this, the team addressed all conceivable conditions of delivery: 0-100°F temperatures, low/high humidity, power outages in the reefer (which is typically run off diesel fuel with an electrical backup), shock and vibration. “We were surprised to learn that oceanborne freight suffers less vibration or shaking than air cargo does,” she notes. Environmental testing was performed at a test chamber run by the University of Texas A&M, and a major refrigeration-equipment vendor. Testing included pre- and post-trial molecular analysis of the product for stability, potency, clarity and other factors.

The program included testing a variety of blanket suppliers, with our multilayer, breathable PalletQuilt® winning out. The arrangement includes extensive reuse of the quilts, which are returned from a shipment, quality-checked and refurbished as necessary through QPS’s Inspect, Clean, Recycle program (ICR). The quilts are redeployed up to fifteen times, providing further cost savings.

The first oceanborne shipment was from the U.S. West Coast port to Pakistan. Since then, the program has been expanded to multiple East and West Coast ports, with destinations all over the world. “We are able to monitor the shipment in transit with GPS tracking and condition monitoring,” says their Quality Manager. The company is working with a major international freight forwarder to manage operations with contracted ocean carriers. Typically, the container is filled at the company’s warehouse, trucked to the port, then conveyed to the cargo ship and plugged in. Shipments go out roughly weekly, and air cargo is generally a backup for time-sensitive or small-quantity shipments.

Read the original article in the September 2018 edition of Pharmaceutical Commerce by clicking here.