Using IoT sensors
and cold chain
to reduce
inventory risk

Author: Adam Kimmel

With demand spikes from home-bound consumers now ordering their food online and the importance of transporting COVID-19 vaccines at their required temperatures, cold temperature product supply has never been more critical.

But managing the so-called "cold chain" poses a number of unique challenges. The best way to solve these crucial problems for the wide variety of cold transport applications is to turn to the Internet of Things (IoT), specifically IoT sensors) to monitor products' climate conditions in near-real time through each supply chain step.

Deploying a solution that uses IoT sensors allows organizations to leverage Industry 4.0 to optimize the supply chain and safely deliver temperature-sensitive products to customers when they are needed.

Inventory risk and supply chain management

To win the supply chain game, you have to deliver the product when the consumer wants it while carrying as low an inventory as possible at all times. While simple in concept, pacing the supply accurately in practice, amidst factors far outside your control, is complicated.

With demand forecasting, a standard tool used to mitigate supply risk, procurement teams identify primary and backup suppliers for products and use historical data to predict how much they should stock in advance in anticipation of consumer needs. With the advent of the connected supply chain, implementing IoT sensors can assist with automating stock replenishment orders. This solution helps enable optimized inventory levels, collect demand data in response to real-time market conditions and unlock cold chain supply management.

What is cold chain management?

The term "cold chain" refers to temperature-controlled product supply, typically at low temperatures to preserve the assets. This includes regulating product temperatures through packaging and vehicles. Two of the most prominent applications are in food shipment and pharmaceutical transport.

Providing refrigerated food delivery is crucial as consumers push for fresh food, which accounts for nearly 50% of sales growth dollars in retail stores in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). This trend is expected to continue growing at 2.4% through 2023. Existing solutions in this space include refrigerated trucks and dry or chemical ice packs in fiber-insulated packaging.

Pharmaceuticals are even more critical, especially in our current moment, since the existing COVID-19 vaccines need to be refrigerated en route to the recipient. The Pfizer vaccine requires -76°F storage, while Moderna's requires a 5°F storage temperature. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows slightly higher temperatures for temporary transport, administering the COVID-19 vaccine is perhaps the most critical cold chain application of our generation.

The challenges of cold chain technologies

Managing cold chain supply requires you to coordinate many moving pieces. Depending on the number of steps and ambient climate in the supply chain, it is imperative to maintain packaging integrity and minimize delays during shipment. Engineers design the temperature control to withstand a nominal temperature differential and shipping lifespan; too much deviation from the design point could spoil the food or pharmaceutical product.

The innovation in cold chain technologies extends beyond the standard supply chain logistics challenges, such as delays in truck availability, manufacturing equipment failures and operations breakdowns like raw material shortages.

To these stressors, exacerbated by the pandemic, the cold chain adds shorter shelf life requirements, climate-controlled trucks, and specialized driver and handling requirements. These risks highlight the need to monitor the condition of the product at all times throughout its journey.

How is technology aiding cold chain management?

The most accurate method to assure product integrity is to build an IoT solution that incorporates specialized IoT sensors. Including these sensors gives you a picture of a product's temperature, storage history, location and vibration profile during transport. This data allows traceability to isolate the material in a minimal quantity, improving product safety. If the storage or in-transit temperature exceeds the desired ranges, the sensors can alert your team via the IoT application to take immediate corrective action.

In addition to monitoring the critical product temperature, IoT solutions allow you to monitor the transport fleet with GPS sensors. These sensors inform you of the nearest truck's position to reduce pickup time lag, open communication pathways between the driver and your command center, and provide data on the utilization of your storage equipment and transport vehicles. Gathering this large amount of data provides more in-depth insight into determining the return on investment (ROI) of equipment and enables you to compare the performance of different suppliers' products. The sensors may also provide information around driver habits to ensure safe transport of critical shipments.

The world is increasing the importance and visibility of cold chain management to transport the COVID-19 vaccine. Using an IoT solution built around a number of multipurpose sensors to monitor inventory reduces inventory inconsistency, improves product safety and maximizes the ROI of temperature-controlled material shipment.

Learn more about Verizon's asset tracking and management solutions.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.