Complexity, Communication, Collaboration
This week the Georgia Tech Research Institute is hosting “The 2012 Academic Cold Chain Forum” in Atlanta. This conference pairs business executives from the food and pharmaceutical industries with researchers from Georgia Tech, University of South Florida and other universities to define and discuss issues in the cold chain.
As part of my job, I deal with cold chain on a daily basis but, when it comes down to it, we all do. Every time we buy fresh produce, meats, seafood or poultry, or every time we use a temperature sensitive pharmaceutical, we’re dealing with the cold chain. Unless you work in the industry (i.e. you work for a grower or pharmaceutical manufacturer), however, I think it is pretty much impossible to fully realize just how complex the cold chain is.
Between the multiple hand offs that occur, the potential variations in packaging, the different temperature sensitivities of the products and the myriad of partners, it is one enormous, complicated beast. Dealing with the beast seems to come down to what I’ll term “The Three Cs”. First, it’s important to understand the complexity of the chain. For example, if you’re in produce, it’s important to know that certain fruits (such as berries) need to be refrigerated at 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit to maximize freshness. But, that temperature will ruin tomatoes or egg plants. Same thing for pharmaceuticals…some need to be stored 2-7 degrees Celsius, others would be ruined at that temperature. Accounting for these variances involves proper packaging, storing and transport. Multiply all of the variables and it makes it tricky to ensure you’re delivering quality product consistently.
The next step in solving the problem is communication. During one panel session, we were reminded by Anthony Totta of FreshXperts, that the cold chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That means we’re all in this together and we need to find ways to share information about the condition of the product throughout the supply chain.
This leads to the third C: Collaboration. Beyond just having the information and communicating it, cold chain partners have to agree to work together. Producers and shippers. Shippers and retailers or providers. Everyone has to pull on the rope in the same direction for the cold chain to work properly.
All of this comes down to having actionable data about the condition of the product and having that data on-demand throughout the cold chain. Every partner needs to know what they’re delivering to the next partner in the chain.
This also means realizing that there’s an implied ownership or commitment to quality even after ownership of the product has passed from one entity to the next. Think of a branded vegetable such as cauliflower, for example. A grower spends time producing the best quality cauliflower available and puts their name on it. They need to know that the cauliflower is being handled, shipped and managed properly, else a poor quality product with their name on it ends up on the grocer’s shelf leading to an unhappy customer who will ultimately take their business elsewhere.
Needless to say this is even more acutely true for pharmaceuticals where a bad experience can have much worse results than simply tossing some cauliflower into the garbage.
There’s a lot of focus on RFID at this conference as a way of providing actionable data. RFID solutions are moving from capturing data and making it available only historically or forensically, after the fact, to providing actionable data proactively – and making it easier to share that data more easily shared across supply chain partners. This new approach to managing (versus monitoring) the supply chain can have a huge impact on simplifying the complexity, improving collaboration and increasing communication.
Senior Director of Marketing