The cold chain refers to temperature-controlled logistics of perishable commodities that require a specific climate. More specifically, the cold chain refers to all of the equipment and resources that are utilized along the supply chain of transport from point-of-origin to the point of final delivery. It includes transportation assets such as refrigerated containers or railcars, as well as other transportation vehicles that eventually ends up in storage and distribution facilities that handle the product before it reaches the consumer. This complicated chain of events requires numerous elements to building effective cold chain management.
First, an effective cold chain should incorporate innovative technology. This means having the right equipment to achieve the proper temperatures for the commodities during shipment and storage. It also means having the right tools, equipment, and capabilities to monitor temperature and humidity so that the perishables remain intact and reach their final destinations in the conditions desired by the shipper.
The equipment required for refrigeration can be complex; the cold chain should implement and carefully adhere to a disciplined maintenance procedure and program. Maintenance requires time, investment, and a very rigid schedule to ensure that equipment not only works properly but achieves specified and set temperatures at all times. Having a good maintenance program reduces the risk of failure and ultimately results in the cargo reaching its destination on time and in the desired condition. Equipment failure could result in a devastating loss to the shipper and the carrier.
Another component of a robust cold chain is an understanding of available resources. Know your accessible transportation assets as well as the available storage facilities and their capabilities. Not all carriers are equipped with every piece of cold chain equipment, or if any special equipment is available at all. Any shipper of temperature-sensitive goods should be aware of the geography and availability of cold storage facilities. They are not available everywhere; therefore, shippers need to employ strategic planning in order to route the perishable cargo properly.
At present, there is high demand for (but limited supply of) cold storage equipment as more and more perishable goods are shipped worldwide. Today, more goods compete for square footage in storage facilities and within transportation assets such as railcars, containers, and other modes of transport.
In planning the cold chain, it is also important to understand the different levels of temperature requirements. Some commodities are required to be shipped frozen, while others are required to be shipped in a chilled state or another appropriate temperature-controlled state. That said, the available assets need to match up to the shipping requirements. Not all carriers have both refrigerated and frozen transport capacity and assets, and cold storage warehouse facilities don’t necessarily have the capacity for all the varying levels of temperature control. These are some important facts to gather when planning the many aspects of the cold chain logistics.
Another important factor in operating a cold chain is understanding and complying with the rules and regulations about how individual goods are to be shipped. The regulatory bodies that create, enforce, and ensure compliance with these rules and regulations include U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to name a few. Such organizations develop and impose regulations and requirements to safely move perishables both within North America and around the world.
The future of the cold chain transportation market is robust. It has been growing steadily and is expected to only grow larger, and is forecasted to reach $142.6 billion by 2024. This hefty figure due to many factors, including our global interdependence on fresh produce and food products that are consumed in geographic locations far from where they are grown or produced. In addition, commodities such as pharmaceuticals may be produced in one portion of the world and only available for distribution in another part of the world.
In the future we can expect the cold chain to become more critical as we become accustomed to the viable benefit that perishable commodities of all types provide to society. Shippers, carriers, and other logistics managers must implement significant knowledge of available resources. Additionally, they must understand market capacity for cold chain logistics in order to serve their customers and allow their businesses to grow to meet the demand of this market.
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