IoT sensors offer real-world tracking and data-driven answers to supply chain problems.
Dagny Dukach, Tive
From natural disasters blocking roads to geopolitical tensions threatening international trade, shipping sensitive, time-critical medical devices has never been more challenging. Manufacturers tasked with delivering life-saving equipment and supplies must do everything they can to avoid damages and limit delays, all while navigating an ever more complex global supply chain. That’s why some manufacturers are turning to the Internet of Things (IoT) to gain the visibility they need to identify and eliminate in-transit problems.
The field of medical devices is diverse. As a result, part of the challenge when it comes to optimizing the medical device supply chain is the sheer variety of equipment, supplies, and other medical products that must be transported, all with different requirements for timing, location, and in-transit handling.
Understanding the sources of damage and delay
For example, for imaging devices such as MRI, mammogram, and X-ray machines, one of the biggest issues facing shippers is in-transit damage due to mishandling. These machines are complex, fragile, and expensive, and damage to a single component can often render the entire machine inoperable. When medical equipment reseller Nationwide Imaging Services shipped an MRI machine across the country in 2010, they were disappointed to discover that a critical part had broken en route. This sort of damage generally occurs as a result of rough handling: Perhaps it was knocked over while being loaded into the truck, or dropped while being transported between vehicles. The MRI machine was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the in-transit damage made it completely unusable. Similarly, many surgical lasers still rely on fragile glass tubes that can easily be damaged if they are not handled carefully.
Rough handling is an important cause of damage to medical equipment, but it’s not the only one. For some medical devices, temperature and humidity control are just as important when it comes to ensuring the product is usable upon arrival. Electronic components, for example, are susceptible to damage if exposed to excessive temperatures or humidity levels. High temperatures can lead to cracked screens, reduced battery life, short circuits caused by condensation, and in extreme cases, melting of metal or plastic components.
Pharmaceutical or combination products must also be maintained within precise temperature bounds to avoid damage. In 2017, Baxter International was forced to recall an entire shipment of Intralipid 20% IV fat emulsion because it was accidentally exposed to subfreezing temperatures while being transported to a distribution center. The drug becomes dangerous if it experiences temperatures below zero degrees Celsius, and as a result, the entire shipment was deemed unusable.
Of course, in-transit damages are only one of the challenges facing medical device manufacturers. In addition to damages, many manufacturers are also particularly concerned with ensuring on-time delivery of their critical products. Shipments of extremely time-sensitive goods can be delayed by a wide variety of factors: anything from regulatory issues to a mix-up at customs to natural disasters can keep these vital shipments stuck in transit.
For example, many companies and non-profit organizations struggled to deliver life-saving medical equipment and supplies to communities in North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence. “Transportation in North Carolina is greatly hampered by the closure of almost 1,000 roads and major highways,” explained Beth Reece of the Defense Logistics Agency. One truck driver tasked with delivering emergency supplies describes how “routes that normally take just a couple of hours have turned into almost seven-hour drives because not only are some roads closed, others are clogged by people trying to get back to their homes.” Faced with these sorts of challenges, it can become nearly impossible to deliver vital supplies in a timely manner.
Of course, natural disasters aren’t the only cause of shipment delays. More mundane occurrences such as misfiled paperwork or an old-fashioned traffic jam can sometimes lead to delays of hours, days, or even weeks. When a Harvard biology lab was shipping valuable equipment and samples from the U.S. to a partner lab in Europe, they were disappointed to discover that an important shipment was held at customs in Zurich for several days because their shipping company had incorrectly filled out some paperwork. Although the shipment eventually arrived, the delay could have been catastrophic for the extremely sensitive goods.
In addition to accidental mix-ups at customs, geopolitical issues can also create regulatory hurdles that significantly impact manufacturers’ ability to ship goods on schedule. Rising tensions between the U.S. and China have begun to spark concern regarding the impact of increased trade friction on global supply chains. Similarly, as Brexit looms for the U.K., officials at the British National Health Service (NHS) have cited “availability of drugs from European suppliers,” and “timely supply of medical supplies” as key concerns that may arise with increased regulation. The NHS statement goes on to explain that many medical supply chains operate “on a just in time basis,” and so any delay in delivering supplies could directly impede patient treatments.
Harnessing IoT sensors
Clearly, the impact of damaged and delayed product is huge. Avoiding in-transit damages and delays is vital to ensuring medical device companies stay successful, hospitals stay stocked and patients stay healthy. But what can manufacturers do to combat the growing complexity of the modern medical supply chain? The key is data.
Just as data allows scientists to identify effective treatments and design effective devices, so too can data help supply chain managers to develop effective, efficient transportation operations. IoT sensor technologies provide manufacturers and shippers with real-time visibility into the location and condition of their in-transit goods, giving them the information they need to identify and eliminate delays and damages before it’s too late.
These multi-sensor tracking devices can last over a year on a single charge and monitor not just the location of medical device shipments, but also their temperature, humidity, shock levels, and other key metrics. All of this vital supply chain data is sent to the manufacturer in real time over the cellular network, triggering immediate notifications if shipments are likely to be late or are experiencing potentially damaging temperature or shock levels.
Armed with this real-time location and condition data, medical equipment manufacturers can identify problems as soon as they occur, and in some cases, resolve the issue before any damage is done. With a heads up as soon as potentially harmful shock events or temperature excursions occur, manufacturers can call the carrier right away to determine the source of the issue, be it a bumpy road, a broken air conditioner or some other issue. In addition, they can contact the recipient and make sure that the equipment receives an extra inspection upon arrival, or if the damage is severe, the manufacturer can ship a replacement part right away.
Similarly, without supply chain tracking, hospitals and patients are often left in the dark when shipments are running late, with no way of knowing when they will arrive or how to plan ahead. But if real-time location data indicates that critical medical supplies are not on target to arrive in time, the manufacturer can expedite a replacement shipment and warn the end customer in advance, mitigating the damage done.
Further, once manufacturers begin to amass comprehensive datasets regarding the in-transit location and condition of their goods, it becomes possible not only to lower the impact of individual damages and delays but to reduce those problems on a macro scale throughout the supply chain. Instead of just fixing a single damaged shipment, it becomes possible to determine when and where shipments tend to experience damage, identify the source of the problem, and eliminate the issue across the entire supply chain. Access to data enables manufacturers to adopt a data-driven optimization mindset, identifying patterns and eliminating the root causes of supply chain issues.
With IoT-powered tracking tools, medical device manufacturers can revolutionize their operations and achieve new levels of efficiency and visibility across their organizations. And ultimately, this insight into where shipments are and whether they are likely to arrive on time and undamaged is the key to staying competitive in the modern medical devices industry. In an increasingly complex world, it is vital that medical device manufacturers embrace these new IoT technologies to ensure their supply chains are robust, efficient, and constantly improving.
Dagny Dukach is a marketing manager for Tive (Cambridge, Mass.).