The flock of air charters flying personal protection equipment (PPE) from China to other parts of the world has been on the wane since late May, as national economies ramped up their own production, supplemented by larger volumes beginning to arrive on ocean vessels, but logistics activity around the healthcare sector has remained feverish.
In addition to PPE and breathing machines, the Covid-19 pandemic unleashed massive demand for transportation of test kits and samples, as research and development seeking to develop a vaccine went into overdrive.
These segments have markedly different requirements, remarked Brian Bralynski, senior director life science and healthcare at DHL Express, Americas. Diagnostic samples usually have a stability period of 48-72 hours, test medication can go for 72-120 hours before coolants have to be changed, he noted.
Some of the vaccines that have been developed have different temperature requirements, added Larry St Onge, DHL’s president, global sector, life sciences & healthcare.
Integrators have been leading the charge to invest in new or expanded capabilities to serve this sector. At the beginning of July, DHL Supply Chain announced that it was going to spend over US$70 million on its healthcare and life sciences capabilities in North America. Most of the money goes to specialized warehousing infrastructure development and new technologies, such as the deployment of collaborative robots that lift picking productivity and site throughput.
The company plans to add new facilities in Memphis and Indianapolis to its network of 30 special facilities across the US.
In June UPS announced a broad push to expand its capabilities. This encompasses a new facility in Shanghai, new GDP-compliant space in the UK and Hungary, additional cooler and freezer footprint close to the integrator’s main hub in Louisville and plans to add up to 1.5 million sq ft of distribution space for Covid-19-related traffic.
Apart from the requirements associated with moving Covid-19-related traffic, the industry is facing massive changes in healthcare, such as the rising trend to deliver to homes, St Onge said.
DHL has tweaked its service lineup to cope better with some of these changes. For the North American market, it has launched an expedited LCL service in June. This can be combined with faster ocean transits, which can cut transit times from Shanghai to the US East Coast by 14 days, the company claims.
It also offers a ‘Multi-Modal Express’ service that uses air and ocean transportation in combination with dedicated inland solutions. For ocean shipments going through Shanghai and Long Beach, door-to-door transit times from China to the US and Latin America are 12-17 days.
Faced with reduced air cargo capacity, as the recovery of passenger flights looks set to scale up at a slower rate than previously expected, observers have warned that there will not be enough lift to cope with the expected rush of vaccine shipments.
St Onge reckons that ocean transportation can complement airfreight to move vaccine. Still, with demand predicted to far outstrip production, there should be a scramble for vaccine reminiscent of the competition for PPE in the early days of the global outbreak and anxiety among national governments to secure and import sufficient quantities as fast as possible.
Beyond the need for capacity, operators are looking increasingly to strategic alliances in order to augment capabilities. In mid-July, DHL Supply Chain announced an alignment with Siemens Healthineers, the parent of several medical technology companies, for logistics coverage of the US. They will jointly invest in a distribution center to be operated by the logistics firm and are looking to deploy robotics and leverage digital technologies.
The DHL Global Forwarding arm has also moved recently to advance digital connectivity.
Together with Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, it created a direct host-to-host connection through an API to enhance data reliability and availability, which went live in June. This allows system-based information sharing about all important milestones of a shipment’s journey and temperature checks for active containers.
At this point, the connectivity covers the carrier’s main hubs in Amsterdam and Paris. The pair intend to roll this out to all their main pharma network points.
“We aim to create transparency and visibility in each step of the cold chain. It is the next stage in the digitization of our industry,” said Ernica Calonghi, global head of pharmaceutical logistics of the European carrier.
Further steps in that direction appear inevitable. “We’re seeing data become ever more important,” said St Onge.