Modularity is a feature, not the benefit, of a design

Modularity is a feature, not the benefit, of a design.  It is what the power of modularity can provide that are the features that distinguish one set of packaging designs from another- Jerry Ferracamo, Product Development Manager, Inmark LifeScience

The concept of modular design is not a new phenomenon.  From examples in nature such as the beehive, to the mazes of cubicles comprising floor after floor of office buildings, we see modularity all around us.  Individual components lending themselves to multiple uses, with the ability to configure in a multitude of ways serving a multitude of purposes, creating economies of scale and ease of scalability is a powerful concept.

In the life sciences supply chain, the concept of modularity has become an increasingly important characteristic of system design.  Today’s life sciences supply chains are increasingly multi-national in scope with broad product portfolios presenting unique challenges for cold chain professionals. The evolving nature of treatments also adds challenges.  From advanced biologics to treatments developed from a patient’s own genetic material to return shipping of expired or defective medical devices (which incorporates a dangerous goods element), today’s life science supply chain is more complex than it has ever been, and will only continue to increase in complexity as science continues to push the boundaries of what is possible. Finding ways to minimize complexity has become more important than ever. 

Let’s consider a typical regional distribution center for a large-size pharmaceutical company.  This facility will likely facilitate all inbound and outbound storage and transport for regional manufacturing sites.  These moves might include everything from R&D materials to Bulk Drug Substance and API to bulk finished good pushed out to forward distribution centers for last mile delivery.  As a result, distribution centers and other locations responsible for cold chain shipments are forced to warehouse a wide variety of shipping containers, and more importantly, cooling elements which occupy high-value storage locations in freezers and refrigerators. 

Therefore, planning the supply chain requires holding a wide array of components in storage, as systems designed with disparate parts do not align well for efficient inventory and procurement activities. Furthermore, this wide variety of temperature-controlled solutions also adds a layer of complexity for documentation via procedures as well as training of warehouse staff. 

These pressures can be even greater for smaller organizations.  A start-up developing the next life-saving treatment will not have the benefit of a large staff with professionals specialized in cold chain management.  Instead, warehouse personnel are left to decipher between regulations, solutions providers and quality requirements to arrive at best-fit solutions. Given space may be even more limited for these companies, having multi-task solutions that offer scalability as their volumes of shipments and complexity of their supply chains grow and evolve is vital.

So the question for designers creating the next generation of cold chain packaging: How do I create not just a solution, but a family of solutions that can address the wide variety of storage temperatures, lanes and risk profiles utilizing as few parts as possible?

Traditionally, many cold chain packaging designs have been created as individual, unique solutions.  Often times, a container may only have one or two different uses, the accompanying cooling elements may be used in one or two designs, but overall there was very little coordination over an entire product range for common components.  Inmark is working to help address this problem with its latest generation of packaging designs.  As Inmark has reinvented its product portfolio over the last five years, we have kept the concept of modularity in the forefront of our design philosophy. 

We feel that the concept of modularity extends beyond just shared components between two or three different pack-outs. We believe that a family of solutions that is built on the same general platform, utilizing as many common parts as possible, and tuned to provide efficient solutions for various risk profiles, provides our clients the types of flexibility, efficiency and scalability that can have a dramatic impact on their supply chains.

Modularity is a feature, not the benefit, of a design.  It is what the power of modularity can provide that are the features that distinguish one set of packaging designs from another.  For example, designs that can switch from one configuration to another by simply swapping components and/or changing conditioning temperature can be a significant efficiency gain and simplify pick/pack operations.  How?  Take the Inmark Racire™ as an example.  This particular family of designs features 48 hour PCM/water hybrid systems designed for two day performance against ISTA 7D profiles, as well as water-based systems qualified against less stringent (but arguably more representative) profile standards. 

The result is four different pack configurations, two for 2-8°C and two for 15-25°C, that utilize the same cooler and internal components, but only swap (color-coded) cooling elements.  And with four sizes, the Racire™ family features a total of 16 different configurations to manage regional parcel shipping, easily tuned to the risk profile and lane challenges provided by each individual shipment.

The flexibility this provides the user is huge.  First, it allows the user to stock a cooler set-up that can multi-task between multiple configurations, leading to economy of scale.  And since the same cooler set-up will be used across many different shipments, inventory replenishment becomes much easier to manage, and stock will reside in inventory for much less time.  This scenario makes a pull system for replenishment far easier to manage/implement and simplifies supply agreements.  Since the same two refrigerant bottle sizes are used in each of the 4 sizes of designs, much the same pull system can be utilized for the cooling elements, freeing up valuable temperature-controlled storage space.

Secondly, companies have an opportunity to manage cost.  By utilizing PCM bottles only when the lane challenges and/or risk profile of the product warrants such protection, and by choosing the appropriately sized shipper for the move (instead of inefficient one-size-fits all approach), companies have a means to match size and performance requirements for each shipment they make.  This takes the concept of “if it fit, it ships” to another level by not only allowing size to be tuned accordingly (which can have a positive impact on freight costs), it allows professionals to make real-time decisions with the tools at hand to manage risk appropriately across a variety of different drugs.

Lastly, since the geometry is shared from solution to solution, procedures and training are much easier to manage.  Poka yoke elements such as color-coded cooling elements and design features such as pockets and other placement aids make pack errors less likely.  Scaled geometry over a family of solutions means that each size looks the same and packs the same, also helping to reduce errors.  And by leveraging the same two sized cooling elements throughout, once again errors will be reduced as a result of less confusion regarding what cooling elements go with which solution.

The realities of today’s life sciences supply chains are requiring cold chain professionals to rethink the methods they utilize to manage their cold chains.  Packaging designs that leverage a modular design approach allow cold chain professionals to leverage best-fit solutions across a spectrum of different risk profiles and transport lanes, while gaining packing efficiency.  In a market where the regulatory landscape requires more and more sophistication and cost to the supply chain, the simplicity of modular designs can help cold chain professionals to control costs and meet the quality requirements for a variety of product needs.

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