Logistics at low temperatures, the revolution that came from the cold | New Times

“Very recently we sent a birthday cake that crossed the entire Peninsula and arrived in perfect condition at its recipient, ready to be served.” The example used by Pere J. Vandellòs, managing director of the Subdirectorate of Logistics and Cold at Correos, to exemplify the technological development applied to cold logistics (that which involves the transport of refrigerated, frozen or deep-frozen products) seems like a minor feat , but is not. The cake included chocolate among its ingredients, a product of a very high degree of thermal sensitivity, since a slight variation in temperature, upwards or downwards, is enough for it to melt or oxidize.

Birthday cakes, yes, but also vaccines, fruits or crustaceans. Technological innovation and passive cold (that is, based on isothermal packaging, and not on vehicles with cold rooms) have revolutionized land, air or sea transport of perishable, heat-sensitive or especially delicate products in recent years. As Vandellòs points out: “The range of items that we can transport long distances while maintaining a constant temperature and with full guarantees is increasing.”

Oysters in isothermal boxes

It is also a daily feat that the oysters and razor clams that Borja Conejero distributes from its storage plant in Vigo (Pontevedra) arrive in perfect condition to places as remote as Norway or Lithuania. Conejero is the founder and owner of Mordeste, a Galician produce company specializing in seafood, meat and fresh fish that relies heavily on excellence in temperature-controlled transportation. They make more than 5,000 shipments per year and, in the last year, “thanks largely to technological innovation in the sector”, they have hardly registered incidents. In fact, the system used by Correos “preserves the temperature of shipments very well and guarantees a high degree of traceability and control of package delivery conditions”. To do this, the products of this businessman from Pontevedra are placed in returnable and reusable containers, “new generation refrigerators that include non-disposable cold accumulators, for multiple uses”.

Cold logistics is a booming sector in our country, as evidenced by the data from the Aldefe sector employers (Association of Cold Storage, Logistics and Distribution of Spain). In the words of Pere Vandellòs, “in recent years, a very remarkable technological change has been taking place that the pandemic has helped to accelerate”. This change in the sector is so big and important that, for example, Correos began in 2020 to design the main lines of its new temperature-controlled delivery service, launched just a few months ago. Today, and according to Vandellòs, the commitment to passive cooling is “firm and strategic”.

He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.


Gels, dry ice and liquid nitrogen

In transport at controlled temperatures, two types of transport solutions are used: active and passive cold. In the first case, the items are transported in large cold rooms equipped with electrical temperature control systems. In the second, the products travel in insulated isothermal boxes whose temperature remains constant without the need for external systems, since they make use of PCM cold accumulators (gels and eutectic plates), dry ice, dry ice and liquid nitrogen. In this way, they can be transported in normal cargo vehicles, since they do not need cold storage, products with different temperature ranges can travel together, each one in its own box, and possible breakdowns or power cuts do not affect the load.

Passive cooling, according to Vandellòs, “guarantees significant savings in carbon footprint”. It also has a positive impact on the quality of the service, because “it allows the use of intelligent equipment that controls the temperature and humidity of each one of the boxes in real time.”

Mobile refrigeration is a sector of industrial activities whose tradition dates back to the mid-19th century. Already at that time, natural ice was used to transport perishable products both in ships and in land vehicles that came to be refrigerators on wheels. The first major nucleus of this fledgling industry was established in London’s St. Katharine wharf, home as far back as 1882 to huge cold rooms where meat products were stored for later distribution throughout the United Kingdom. The concept of “cold chain” was coined in 1908, and since then the importance of thermally simple consumer items traveling at controlled temperatures and as constant as possible has been appreciated. By the mid-1950s, the cold transport industry, especially food, was established throughout the world, thanks to innovations such as dry ice and refrigerated trucks.

The latest developments in the sector have to do with areas of technological innovation such as artificial intelligence algorithms, big data intelligence, blockchain (blockchain) or the internet of things. Thanks to applications derived from these fields, it is possible to carry out a qualitative monitoring in real time of these isothermal boxes with between 48 and 100 hours of autonomy, which travel long distances with delicate products inside. In addition to constant and precise control of temperature and humidity, these devices include real-time reporting of incidents.

Vaccines at their freezing point

In recent decades, the demand for cold transport options for products from the pharmaceutical industry, such as vaccines or oncology drugs, has especially increased. The so-called thermolabile drugs, that is, those that are at risk of destruction, decomposition or substantial change as a result of heat, are currently the main beneficiaries of the increasing use of passive cold.

In Spain, according to data from the logistics provider group DHL Supply Chain Iberia, around 85% of pharmaceutical laboratories have already expressed their preference for passive cold in the transport of their thermolabile products. The distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, which began in January 2021, also made extensive use of this system in a large part of the Spanish autonomous communities. Teresa Pilar Pérez, technical director of Logaritme Serveis Logístics (Barcelona), explained at a sector conference that this was done “because of the guarantees of temperature control offered by passive cold and because the use of portable isothermal boxes in the simplest way of reach all vaccination points.

In the case of Correos Frío, its services to the pharmaceutical industry account for around 20% of the total volume, “the rest is food and, almost residually, chemical products”, explains Vandellòs, who highlights that one of the main assets with What the company has is a workforce in which more than 30,000 professionals have already received training in GDP (Good Distribution Practice), that is, the new community directives that regulate the guidelines for the distribution of medicines for human use in the territory of the European Union. Today, they do shipments to any point in Spain, Portugal or Andorra, but they do not rule out making use of their network of international contacts to expand the service in the medium term. The only technical problem, as Vandellòs explains, “is the recovery of equipment in long-distance shipments.”

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