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Making the Switch from Air to Ocean Shipping

For years, the universal biopharma industry has hinged on air cargo to transport finished goods around the globe, even though many of their raw materials and APIs were being transported by ocean freight.

The high value of the temperature-sensitive, biologic finished products with a single pallet potentially worth millions of dollars has been a key difference in whether the products were shipped by ocean or air. Similarly, the predictability and short time frame of air delivery – hours or days instead of weeks – has been another key indicator of making the switch from air to ocean shipping.

Testing for Air Cargo Logistics

Air cargo is arguably the single-most expensive from of cargo transport. It is nearly 4 times the cost of ocean transport. In the early 2010s, Eli Lilly took on a project to evaluate the use of ocean-borne, refrigerated containers as an alternative to air cargo. For testing purposes, Eli Lilly had used available returned product as a near-identical stand-in for actual product that had eventually been withdrawn from distribution. After exhaustive testing, Eli Lilly made the switch to ocean freight in 2015. Since then, it has been saving them millions of dollars in annual shipping costs.

“There has not been one reject shipment,” stated Andrea Lynn Guisbert-Williams, Quality Manager at Eli Lilly, “and in some ways, ocean borne can be a less severe form of delivery.”

The key to the Eli Lilly undertaking is the use of thermal blankets provided by QProducts & Services. Lilly is now using reefer containers and QProducts’ blankets exclusively; no other insulation is necessary for the palletized shipments.

Making the Switch from Air to Ocean Shipments

According to Guisbert-Williams, it was a hard sell to get the company to consider the switch from air to ocean. To address this, the Eli Lilly team considered all conceivable conditions of delivery. This included 0-100°F temperatures, low and high humidity, shock, vibration, and power outages in the reefer, which are typically run off diesel fuel with an electrical backup.

“We were surprised to learn that ocean borne freight suffers less vibration or shaking than air cargo does,” noted Guisbert-Williams.

Environmental testing was performed at a test chamber run by the University of Texas A&M and a major refrigeration-equipment vendor. Testing included pre and post-trial molecular analysis of the Lilly product for stability, potency, clarity, and other factors.

The program included testing a variety of blanket suppliers, with QProducts’ multi-layer, breathable PalletQuilt® withstanding the competition. QProducts & Services’ arrangement with Eli Lilly includes extensive reuse of the PalletQuilt®, which are returned from a shipment, quality checked, and refurbished as necessary. The quilts are redeployed up to fifteen times, providing further cost savings.

Ocean Freight Becomes a Success

The first ocean borne shipment was from a West Coast port of the United States to Pakistan. Since then, the program has been expanded to multiple East and West Coast ports, with destinations all over the world.

“We are able to monitor the shipment in transit with GPS tracking and condition monitoring,” said Guisbert-Williams.

The company is working with a major international freight forwarder to manage operations with contracted ocean carriers. Typically, the container is filled at a Lilly warehouse, trucked to the port, then conveyed to the cargo ship and plugged in. Shipments go out nearly every week, and air cargo is generally a backup for time-sensitive or small quantity shipments.

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