Sonoco ThermoSafe survey finds growing reliance on 3PLs for cold chain

Three times as many manufacturers expect more 3PL use as expect less; 38% see no change

A survey conducted by Sonoco ThermoSafe, one of the leading providers of passive packaging for life sciences products, shows that industry managers place performance above cost as a container-selection qualification, are looking to increase their usage of third-party logistics (3PLs) providers, and are increasingly factoring in environmental concerns with recyclability and reuse of the containers.

Preliminary results are based on 165 respondents both who were both personally interviewed and who filled out an online survey. Pharmaceutical Commerce’s editor in chief, Nick Basta, was part of an industry/analyst panel that worked with Sonoco ThermoSafe (Arlington Heights, IL) to develop the questionnaire. Final results will be presented during a talk at the upcoming IQPC Cold Chain Forum, on Oct. 2.

With most of the non-manufacturing respondents (about 25% of the respondents) excluded, the data show that roughly 40% of pharma managers don’t plan any changes in their use of 3PLs (Table 1) over the next couple years. But with “greatly” or “somewhat” increased usage added together, and the same for “somewhat” or “greatly” reduced, there is a clear trend toward more dependence on 3PLs: 24% want more, and 7.4% expect to use less.

When asked to identify key reasons for using 3PLs, respondents chose cost savings by a significant margin. Both and “international expansion” and “change in business model”—the second and third-most selected criteria--identify overall industry trends in the commercialization of temperature-controlled products, while the other key reasons mostly point to a higher degree of dependence on 3PL expertise.

All this fits well with the macro trends occurring in the global pharma industry, at least among branded products: more biologics (which are mostly temperature-controlled products); more effort to reach out to emerging markets around the world. To an unusual degree, the pharma industry will depend on the extent, and level of quality, of 3PL services in order to reach those markets with the increasingly complex pharma products in development today.

Package perspectives

When asked what determines selection of packaging configurations, respondents chose “packaging efficiency” as the No. 1 criterion—which is looked on as being able to keep product within specified temperature for more extended periods. “Total cost of ownership” (TCO) and “low price” were secondary choices.

Respondents also voiced a preference for standardized containers (49%) versus customized ones (30%)—which is a mixed message, because it could be that a custom design has a lower TCO than standard ones. On the other hand, the availability of the standard package, in many locations and depots around the world, could outweigh the potential cost savings.

A similar mixed message occurs when considering reuse and recycling of the packages: 51% said that they reuse packages now (which could be a regulatory infraction if improperly carried out), versus 39% who do not. But, looking ahead, nearly 70% of respondents would engage in reuse/recycle, provided that it lowered TCO.

Sonoco ThermoSafe sees the results as fitting well with its longer-range planning. “Our company has made major investments in developing prequalified shipping containers, and it’s gratifying to see that survey respondents are thinking the same way,” says Russel Grissett, VP and GM of the group.