Cardinal Health Will Test a New Approach to Cold Chain Shipping


Branded as the Ember Cube, the container features reusability, real-time tracking and self-contained recharging of refrigerant

Ember Technologies is a consumer products company that (modestly) says it will “revolutionize the way people eat, drink and live.” Its current offering is a variety of self-heating coffee mugs whose bottoms include electronics for monitoring and maintaining a set temperature. Now, in a collaboration with Cardinal Health, it has developed a reusable container for shipping 2-8°C pharmaceuticals. Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions will use this container in a pilot, this year, presumably shipping case-sized quantities of cold chain biologics to hospitals or central pharmacies.

Like many of today’s latest automobiles, the Ember Cube carries as much electronics as its other fit-for-purpose components. The onboard sensors report temperature, humidity and location, passing those signals in real time to a cloud-based dashboard for tracking. An e-ink screen on the containers exterior can provide both an internal temperature readout, as well as the shipping label. When the container is to be returned, the press of a button generates the reverse-logistics label and the box is ready for pickup.

The cooling technology is innovative. Ember calls it “self-refrigerated;” however, it depends on the same sort of chilled phase-change material (PCM) that conventional, passive cold-chain boxes use, along with internal vacuum panels and an exterior of rubbery foam. As set up, the box can hold 2-8°C for up to 72 hours. If the PCM is exhausted, the shipper can take the box to a station, where a refrigeration system that circulates an ethanol-water mixture can be piped through the Cube to recharge the PCM. (This obviously serves to ready the Cube for reuse as well.) How easily a shipment can be interrupted for a time-consuming recharge remains to be seen.

A key benefit of the Ember technology is greatly reducing packaging waste as compared to single-use boxes. Ember estimates that the Cube can be reused 500 times before decommissioning.

Cardinal Health has a track record of innovation in cold chain; previously, it has won industry awards for streamlining bulk deliveries to pharmacies, and for incorporating coolant in its deliveries to local pharmacies. “Cardinal Health is investing in digital solutions and technology to help our healthcare customers solve problems in innovative ways,” said Heidi Hunter, President of Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions.

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