Air Freight Container Technology: Innovation Through Partnership

Air Freight Container Technology: Innovation Through Partnership

Many industries claim to champion innovation as being a key cornerstone of their company strategy, giving the impression they are listening to market needs and responding accordingly with new and innovative products. However, within the air cargo market, there are sparks of innovation creating lighter weight containers, adding sensors to measure temperature and location, and improved cooling technology. Yet, new solutions are not widespread. There are clear gaps in the market and we’ve observed one which requires a new solution – for the pharmaceutical industry.

Pharmaceutical Air Cargo

There has been a rise in available active and passive solutions to ship cargo by air, and while the air cargo market houses some impressive options for both these categories, we believe that there is a huge gap which has failed to consider how to navigate complex air cargo handling procedures and fulfil supply chain needs in the pharmaceutical arena.

The pharmaceutical market is flooded with slightly pricier active container solutions, while many procurement teams may choose to save on upfront costs by opting for the alternative passive solutions. Both solutions offer up their benefits and challenges. The drawbacks for passive solutions are that they require additional ancillary equipment for temperature control, including pallets or cookie sheets to load onto an airplane. Unlike ULDs, passive systems are not usually classified as ‘airline equipment’, making handling sometimes cumbersome and airline approval difficult. Alternatively, active solutions are often chosen as the default, familiar choice for an air freight container due to their ‘unlimited’ temperature control performance because it can be plugged in – if electricity is available. But like any high-performing product with a well-known ‘brand name’, you pay top dollar.

So, we asked ourselves, what does the market need…?

  • Excellent temperature performance, in a more cost-effective passive container?
  • Easier handling without a compromise on performance?
  • Lighter weight and the ability to reposition easily to move any form of cargo?

These questions brought Sonoco ThermoSafe and AEROTUF together to come up with an answer.

The Expertise – Sonoco ThermoSafe 

ThermoSafe has been working with pharmaceutical companies and transportation partners for 30+ years. Understanding pharmaceutical logistics requirements is part of everyday business. ThermoSafe’s ISC Lab engineers have solved some of the toughest challenges for pharmaceutical manufacturers to increase performance, reduce weight and maximize payload.

ISC engineers come from a wide background of mechanical, biomedical, chemical, materials sciences and quality assurance testing. The tools at their disposal enable them to create and test samples using EPS, PUR, VIP, and phase change materials for rapid prototyping. Advanced thermal modeling software speeds up project development and enables accurate solution development.

Today innovation always keeps sustainability in mind. As the pharmaceutical industry is tasked to reduce and reuse, ThermoSafe is constantly evolving to help achieve sustainability goals. In 2020/21 alone, innovations include the new EoS curbside recyclable packaging line, Orion parcel rental program and Pegasus ULD for rental bulk air freight shipping.

Across the board, ThermoSafe is equipping new packaging systems with data tracking and visibility capabilities. These data combine environmental metrics, real-time location, ambient conditions to provide complete insights into shipment performance for the pharmaceutical manufacturer.

The Expertise – AEROTUF 

We are all aware of the importance of the ULD and its integral role in the movement of baggage and cargo. However, when moving away from regular ULD requirements and more towards cargo which calls for specific conditions to be met, a more specialized and sophisticated solution must be introduced to fulfil those needs.

Since inception in 1998, AEROTUF has grown to be one of the leaders in the cargo market. From the first AeroBOX delivery in 2002, to the introduction of AeroSECURE and AeroPALLET in 2016 and the innovative AeroTHERM most recently. AEROTUF has been renowned for designing and delivering well regarded, high quality and robust air cargo containers. At the heart of this growth has constantly sat innovation, which continues to be the backbone of the Company.

AEROTUF’s flexibility to the market has been key to success. It’s this dynamism that they feel will continue to build a robust and innovative space both within the Company and within the market. When it comes to innovation, AEROTUF is in the business of providing Performance Driven ULD’s. These are containers which can be thermally protective, high-security and cost reducing.  At the same time, they are highly durable, efficient, and light.

Not only does a Performance Driven ULD satisfy specialized conditions, but it also often has the capability to generate revenue and boost profitability for Airlines, Poolers and 3PL’s, who can capitalize on them as part of an enhanced product offerings portfolio.

The Answer? The Pegasus ULD 

The Pegasus ULD answers the market needs. It is the world’s first passive bulk temperature-controlled container for pharmaceutical use that is an FAA and EASA approved unit load device, which allows it to speed through existing international ground handling and customs processes at the lowest possible cost.

Engineered with composite materials, the Pegasus ULD® is a lighter solution that is substantially more damage-resistant than traditional metal containers and has a lighter carbon footprint. Because single-use packaging is costly and awkward to dispose of, Pegasus ULD provide a sustainable and economical solution through a lease program. On retirement, 90% by weight of each Pegasus is recyclable.

The Pegasus ULD contains a fully integrated, FAA-approved telemetry system, providing real-time, cloud-based data on both payload and ambient temperature and key environmental factors, precisely synchronized with GPS location, which confirmed that the internal temperature held between 2°C and 8°C throughout the entire journey.

Vivian Berni, Director of Product Management at Sonoco ThermoSafe says, “Finally pharmaceutical manufacturers can have peace of mind knowing their global air freight shipments will encounter less risks and delays, and arrive on-time, in-spec using the first-ever passive Pegasus ULD”.

Tom Pherson, President on AEROTUF says, “The ULD is such a familiar and trusted format, it made a lot of sense for us to come together using our experience and technologies to create this industry first that simplifies the user experience while increasing levels of performance”

The Partnership 

When you consider a working partnership, what benefits come to mind? Collaboration, teamwork…?  ThermoSafe and AEROTUF came together in 2019 to create a blueprint for a series of air cargo containers (ULD’s), based on the AeroTHERM chassis, to give tight temperature control for a minimum of 120 hours, with a performance level rivalling active temperature protection ULD’s in the marketplace

AEROTUF, knows the  ULD market. With over 40,000 ULDs produced, their knowledge within the industry is strong enough to foresee potential innovation opportunities which will meet the needs of  its customers. As innovation is very important to their mission, looking for opportunities to collaborate with subject matter experts is always an important element of their strategy, which led to the development discussions with Sonoco ThermoSafe, the world’s largest provider of temperature-controlled packaging. 

Sonoco ThermoSafe identified rapidly growing needs for a different approach to the movement of pharmaceutical and healthcare products via air, and so the story begins as a tale of commonality… a shared expertise in operating within the cool chain market with an inherent understanding of the materials required and how they can be applied to deliver value to the shared customer base. A match made in air cargo heaven? We think so.

The partnership combines Sonoco ThermoSafe’s expertise in thermal engineering and pharmaceutical logistics with AEROTUF’s materials science and aeronautical engineering capabilities.

“AEROTUF has an excellent track record in creating light-weight, high-performance  Unit Load Devices . Combining AEROTUF’s expertise in container technology with ThermoSafe’s pharmaceutical industry experience has allowed us to provide a game-changing solution for the pharmaceutical global air freight industry”, says Chris Day, Director Marketing and Innovation at Sonoco ThermoSafe