Damaged or no-longer-functioning products are delivered to end users on a regular basis. While this puts users in a bad situation, with no product to show for the time and money spent, it can be an even bigger problem for the companies involved. Resupplying massive pipes for an oil rig or large shipments of medical products takes a lot of time and resources.
The supply and cold chain process can be long, with several opportunities for damage or temperature deviation, leading to potentially broken parts or chemicals that are no longer viable. The transportation portion alone usually requires multiple exchanges. This process varies from product to product and company to company, but what remains constant is the likelihood that problems will arise, something companies, especially those with long supply chains, can’t afford.
Many issues appear during stages with blind spots—moments in the supply chain where product safety and status are unknown. Blind spots in a supply chain are dangerous, but there are steps everyone involved can take to ensure transparency and better quality service. Adding monitors or indicators to products and shipments can simplify data tracking and gathering; alert users if, when and where in a supply chain a problem occurs; and warn handlers to be cautious and attentive.
The supply chain faces many challenges, with one of the biggest being physical damage. During the storage phase of the supply chain process, products are packaged, relocated, stacked and moved. In the transition between storage and transport, where products are moved from a warehouse to a truck or to another mode of transportation in order to make their way to the consumer, products are lifted, carried and repositioned. Improper handling is a significant cause of damage. Lastly, in transport, boxes or packages can move around, slide, slam into each other and tip over.
In these few steps, which don’t fully encompass the complete supply chain process, a package can amass a number of potential damages, some that might not be visible at first glance. With no visibility into the product inside a package, small impacts add up over time, sometimes creating a bigger issue with the product than one major impact.
Monitors made to measure impacts, even small ones, can save money, products and time in the long run by calling attention to an issue and giving suppliers the opportunity to fix it quickly. Devices can track and monitor shipments in real time to identify and strengthen areas of weakness through the supply chain, reducing problems.
Knowing where a product or package was when it was damaged, how it was damaged and whose care it was in makes it possible to reduce inefficiencies and avoid additional costs. Monitors can also help identify which points, if any, see continuous damage and if it occurs in a specific location or in a specific company’s care. Having this information ensures that problems stop and don’t happen again, by enabling the company to identify who is responsible for the damage.
Data of logged impacts serves as definitive proof that damage did occur while in the hands of a specific party. This could potentially save a company millions of dollars by proving they aren’t at fault if a damaged product is delivered. It also helps determine if different employees or vendors are necessary to maintain product integrity, and serves as protection for those that work to maintain product quality.
Damage, no matter how big or small, can render a product unusable or unsafe. One piece of equipment required for an oil rig can cost thousands of dollars. If multiple pieces are broken or damaged, thousands can quickly add up to millions of dollars in losses. Delayed timelines due to damages can also cost weeks of production time, further increasing costs. These extra and unforeseen costs have an adverse effect on the bottom line, resulting in wasted products and missed opportunities for income.
Another problem, seen more often when dealing with food or pharmaceuticals, is temperature-related damage. Products of this sort typically have temperature requirements for transport and storage. For example, if meat goes over a certain temperature, it can no longer be distributed. If vaccines are exposed to unacceptable temperatures, they can lose efficacy. Temperature discrepancies in the cold chain can lead to wasted products and profit loss.
Single-use indicators can notify the next link in the cold chain if a product is within the appropriate temperature range. Warehouse and transportation professionals, as well as consumers, can utilize this information in order to make a quick and informed decision on the status of a product. End users like medical doctors, patients and food suppliers are more concerned with being able to immediately recognize if a product is ready for use or not. In these cases, single-use indicators would be most beneficial. However, temperature data loggers can provide more info, if needed.
A variety of factors can lead to temperature changes. If not well versed in cold chain requirements and maintenance, warehouse employees are at risk of following improper storage methods. Products might be left unattended, sitting at the wrong temperature for extended periods of time. Some spots within a warehouse might have temperature variations, another factor employees might not understand. Products can also sit on shelves or in boxes for days or weeks longer than expected. These two variables combined can lead to spoiled and ineffective inventory.
However, with visible and easily discernable indicators, handlers are likely to be more vigilant, working harder to monitor and maintain temperatures for extended periods of time. Workers will know not to push a potentially compromised product out if the indicators warn against it.
Transportation is another place variations can occur if refrigerated trucks or vehicles stop working or aren’t set at the right temperature. Indicators reveal if a product’s temperature has gone beyond its threshold. The final step, often known as the last mile, is where most excursions take place. Products aren’t always delivered straight to the consumer. Sometimes they are left outside, in a mail room, a store room or other places for hours. Temperature indicators inform the receiver of any temperature excursions.
Supply chains can vary in steps and processes, but many face similar issues and obstacles. Damages, whether they be in a typical supply chain or cold chain, can affect a company’s timeline, reduce profit and require additional resources. The supply chain process is difficult to perfect. Add a specified product temperature and it gets even tougher.
Ultimately, there are steps every touchpoint in the supply chain can take to ensure the best possible product quality. It’s not enough for the producer and consumer to treat items appropriately. Those in the middle of the supply chain have greater potential to make or break the chain. Luckily, solutions exist in order to minimize these problems, make the process more transparent and mitigate loss.
Angela Kerr is vice president, product portfolio, with SpotSee, a provider of real-time impact monitoring and tracking solutions.