New quarter-PMC cold chain container offers economic benefits to shippers


Sonoco ThermoSafe's device provides 120 hours of on-spec performance

Pharma manufacturers making bulk shipments of temperature-controlled products often use metal- or hard plastic-walled containers from such vendors as Envirotainer (Upplands Vasby, Sweden) or CSafe (Dayton, OH); there are others. The latest generation of these are “active” (i.e., powered with batteries) to make re-loading with dry ice or other coolants unnecessary for the limited transit times, and for the air freight by which much of this travels. Other vendors produce gaylord-like containers with cardboard or other lower-cost materials, with gel packs for cooling; these are commonly used in ground transportation but are showing up in air freight as well. The gaylord units are generally single-use; the metal containers are almost always reused, and are rented or leased to shippers rather than sold.

Now, Sonoco ThermoSafe (Arlington Hts, IL) is offering a container, the Quarter PMC unit, with several innovations that cross the boundaries between the single-use and metal containers. (“Quarter PMC” is an air-transport term referring to the “LD7” spacing in a widebody aircraft for cargo; four quarter PMCs fit in the space of one LD7 container.) The quarter-PMC size allows for one European-sized pallet. The unit has composite walls engineered with interlocking "L" shapes to reduce edge leaks, and a so-called “universal” packout design, such that the same unit can be used in winter or summer, while generally achieving 120 hours of transit time at a minimum within either 2-8°C, 15-25°C or frozen temperature ranges. The sidewalls of the container used a patented technique, ConvecTECH, from ThermoSafe that enables natural convection to maintain temperature.

The economics of packaging designs and international logistics play strongly into the design choices of the Quarter PMC. Ben VanderPlas, product manager at Sonoco ThermoSafe, says that the capacity of four Quarter PMCs almost matches that of LD7 containers. In a regularly-used shipping setup, the purchase costs of the Quarter PMC are expected to be substantially below the lease, air-freight and return costs of the metal-walled units. The Quarter PMC is not specified for reuse, but the company is expecting that field testing will prove it can handle a small number of reuses, further adding to economic benefits.

Sonoco’s device isn’t the first on the market; at least one other life-sciences cold chain vendor, Emball'Iso, has a unit in use. But the company expects its technical innovations, combined with the international resources of its operations (there are ThermoSafe plants in 15 global locations, and the Sonoco parent has 330), to make the container a preferred option.

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