Insulated systems protect pharmaceutical shipments

Delivering high-value, temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals quickly around the globe through widely varying climates, while maximizing aircraft space, presents demanding challenges.

Softbox Systems, a designer and manufacturer of passive insulated shipping containers, meets such challenges with a proprietary insulated packaging system manufactured from recyclable foam materials integrate VBoard® into the packaging design by Laminations.

In creating the oval-shaped Softbox™ for shipping clinical trial drugs, the company utilized low-density polyethylene (LDPE). This passive system design was based on using high-performance insulation and cold packs to maintain correct product temperature during transportation.

Since that original product, Softbox developed its SilverpodR range of temperature control air cargo containers designed for shipping ambient, chilled, and frozen products. The Silverpod systems are designed to keep product within critical parameters while making maximum use of aircraft Unit Load Devices - aluminum pallets often referred to in the airline industry as cookie sheets - that are widely used by airlines for shipping cargo.

“We can be shipping on just one cookie sheet four to five million dollars worth of pharmaceutical product that has to be maintained at a chilled temperature,” says Richard Jones, managing director of Softbox Systems. “If it freezes, the whole lot may have to be destroyed.”

The latest Silverpod systems use extruded polystyrene panels (XPS) and VBoard to create an insulated packaging system that can keep a controlled temperature for air freight shipments that sometimes travel for days through a broad range of environments and temperatures.

“For the insulation panels, we use XPS because it is available around the world,” says Jones. “We need to be able to supply these systems from regionally available materials in the U.S., Europe, and Asia Pacific. We chose this material because of its global availability and also because it has a high insulation capability.”

The insulation panels are routed to allow their edges to rebate with each other. Using strong adhesive, lengths of VBoard with a 0.20-in. caliper and legs of 3x3 in. are fixed to the panels, leaving a gap that is just wide enough to allow the panels to slide together.

Laminations VBoard became involved when pioneer Edwin Tattam was living at his Bend, OR, house in 2007-2008 and designing the new Silverpod system. Familiar with laminated paperboard edge protection products in the U.K., Tattam did an Internet search for a U.S. manufacturer of such a product, found Laminations and contacted the company, says Jones.

The use of VBoard not only protects the edges and creates an airtight seal where the insulation panels join, but also delivers other advantages.

“One of the things we like about the VBoard is that it provides strong outer edges which enable us to strap the whole system horizontally and vertically so it is very solid,” says Jones.

The panels and the VBoard also are 100-percent recyclable. Softbox Systems employs Laminations to print its company name and Web site on all Silverpod systems.

Putting packaging to the test

Four of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies are already either using Softbox Sytems' products or are in active trials with the products, Jones notes. Softbox Systems performs tests in its environmental testing chambers to simulate real life conditions and temperature stresses that the products will undergo in order to validate performance claims.

He says, “Our large pharmaceutical company clients give us ambient temperature profiles that simulate real-world conditions experienced on their shipping lanes to test against. We have environmental testing chambers capable of taking a full Silverpod LD7 system that can simulate ambient temperatures from minus -40Ëš F up to +plus 140Ëš F. We build the Silverpod system inside our test chamber, use the client's product or dummy product to simulate the thermal mass of the product, and test it. The client gets a validation report that shows how the system performed in maintaining product temperature within a specified range under controlled conditions.”

Softbox Systems controls the temperatures for ambient products, which must be kept between +15°C and +25°C; chilled products must be kept between +2°C and +8°C, and frozen products must be kept below -20°C for up to 120 hours in its Silverpod systems.

“When we're shipping product, we have to maintain the correct temperature range to make sure it arrives in perfect condition,” says Jones. “Millions of dollars are at stake.”

Validation testing normally uses a 72 to 120-hr window.

“If you're taking product from a client's warehouse where it has been packed in cold store to somewhere else in the world, even if you allow a 24-hour delay in customs when it arrives at the destination airport, you can usually achieve a 72-hour window,” Jones says. “We've tested up to 96 hours and in some cases up to 120 hours. But a lot depends on the extreme temperatures the Silverpod is exposed to during shipping.”

Softbox Systems must also validate its systems for weather conditions at different times of the year. “Chicago, for instance, is hot in the summer and very cold in the winter,” he says. “We must therefore validate these systems to extreme hot and cold temperatures that cover every possible eventuality they may face to prove their capability to maintain correct product temperature.”

Product evolution

The original Softbox temperature control packaging system, rather than using expanded polystyrene and polyurethane insulation was made from easy-to-recycle LDPE. It also had a novel design. Rather than being a molded box, it was constructed with wound layers of foam, making it flexible, durable, and capable to withstand the rigors of courier handling.

As a natural progression, the company then introduced its Silverbox and Pallet Shipper systems. These used specially developed LDPE silver technical foam that had an additive that improved insulation performance. The Silverbox range was designed for international shipments of sensitive, valuable clinical trial drugs.

Silverbox is now used by many global pharmaceutical and clinical research companies that rely on the performance of these systems to ensure the efficacy of their clinical trial drugs. Pallet Shippers have been equally successful and with both systems now manufactured in the U.K., U.S., and Asia Pacific.

In 2006, Softbox was approached by a number of its pharmaceutical customers to develop a range of temperature control systems that would integrate with aircraft unit-load devices. The objective was to maximize the available shipping space within aircraft cargo holds to reduce both the cost and carbon footprint of their shipments. These systems used a unique combination of high and low-density laminated layers of LDPE silver technical foam to create robust insulation panels that would provide the durability needed for multi use.

“Although these multi-use Silverpod systems proved highly effective,” Jones says, “we thought the biggest market for us would be to develop a range of single-use systems based on the same concept and objectives. These would provide our customers with a cost-effective alternative to using active air cargo containers.”

An active system has a power source, usually batteries, and a thermostat that controls either a heating or cooling system inside the shipping container. Softbox passive systems utilize insulation and cool packs to surround the product and control temperature.

“The cool packs we use in chilled systems, for example, are a combination of frozen and chilled. So you put your client's product in, you build your system around it, you put your cool packs in, you seal it up, and then you ship it,” says Jones.

“When we developed our Silverpods, we wanted to go head-to-head with active systems,” he adds. “We were able to come up with a system that is significantly cheaper.”

From warehouse to market and back again

The Softbox system of shipping pharmaceuticals can begin with the drugs being delivered by refrigerated truck from the manufacturer to a cold storage facility at the airport where a freight forwarder such as DHL builds a Silverpod system around the pallet or pallets and puts the system on a cookie sheet for loading.

At the other end, the system is either disassembled in a cold storage facility at the airport and shipped by refrigerated truck to the end customer or shipped still inside the Silverpod system directly to the customer's cold storage warehouse. The disassembled Silverpod components are then either recycled or reused.

“While the product's name stipulates single use, a lot of our customers are finding ways to reuse them,” says Jones. “One pharmaceutical company, for example, will use them to ship from the U.S. to the U.K,. and then reuse them to ship to more than 100 destinations around the world. Then they'll flat pack the system and send it back in a sea container to the U.K. to be used again,” Jones says.

“A lot of the customers we're talking to want a system that's robust enough to handle two, three, or maybe even a half dozen uses,” he says. “They're all looking at these green issues to try to get reusability out of it. The VBoard works well with that because it is pretty much indestructible.”

The Silverpod systems offer not only savings at the front end, and with reuse, but also in the actual shipping costs by maximizing the use of space in the cargo hold of aircraft.

“When we designed the Silverpod system, we looked at the aircraft load-device footprint and worked our way back from the size of that cookie sheet, asking how we can maximize the amount of space to enable the pharmaceutical companies to get as much product as possible on the aircraft,” Jones recalls.

“When you compare the Silverpod system to temperature control pallet shippers, we can get almost twice the amount of product in the same space above an aircraft pallet by maximizing the space above the cookie sheet's footprint,” Jones says.

The Silverpod Single Pallet Shipper takes a single pallet of product, but the company also makes Silverpods that handle two or four pallets. “Our Silverpod LD7 system, for example, can get about 6,000 liters of product space on the cookie sheet, twice what you'd get using temperature control pallet shippers. You're taking up half the amount of space on the aircraft and that means massive savings.”

Savings, price, and recyclability are important, but reliable product protection is still the overriding concern when it comes to shipping high-value, temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals.

“When you're talking to a customer whose shipments are worth more than a million dollars, what they want is packaging that works,” Jones concludes.
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