Packaging for a Safe and Sound Trip
New packaging technologies help products survive the hazards of travel
by William Leventon
The dry ice transport container from Kryotrans has a built-in data logger that will activate an alarm if temperature limits are breached.
Your product was perfect when it left the manufacturing plant. But will it still be perfect when it reaches the customer? In large, the answer to this crucial question depends on how well the product was protected from the hazards of the journey, which include shock, vibration, compression, moisture, heat, cold, and theft. Any one of these can damage a product and thereby damage the reputation of the packager among its customers.
Fortunately, there are a host of new offerings aimed at ensuring that the contents of a package are protected from physical as well as temperature-related damage. In addition to helping shield the contents of a package from the elements and rough handling, products are available that help package designers anticipate travel-related problems, warn recipients of tampering, and track damage.
PREVENTING PHYSICAL DAMAGE
Inside a package, products are often protected from physical damage by materials such as bubble wrap or plastic foam peanuts. Serving the same purpose are pads made by the PadPak system from Ranpak Corp. (Concord Township, OH). PadPak uses a converter to produce pads from rolls of three-ply kraft paper.
Recently, Ranpak introduced a software system that attaches a computer to the PadPak converter. The Packaging Automated Logistics system, or PAL, allows users to enter packaging instructions into a PC. During the packaging process, PAL displays the instructions to the operator to ensure that products are cushioned according to in-house specifications and FDA requirements.
When used with the PadPak converter, PAL automatically generates the required amount of padding to protect a product during transport. In another mode, PAL can function as a stand-alone software package, directing an operator on how to pack a product in some other type of cushioning material. PAL can display instructions either in response to a prompt or in a timed sequence. "We've had good feedback from customers who use the timing function," notes Mark Dawson, product manager for Ranpak. "It paces the operator through the process, and this results in productivity gains."
Sometimes, the liquid in a package can act as an intruder by harming the product. To prevent such harm, Süd-Chemie Performance Packaging (Belen, NM) has introduced two moisture-fighting containers. Diagnostic Pak, developed for test kits and strips, is a tube that can be designed in other shapes. Effervescent Pak, which holds vitamins and effervescent products, comes in slightly different diameters than its sister container and includes a spiral that holds tablets in place. Both containers feature caps containing desiccant, which absorbs moisture that finds its way into the tube.
PREVENTING TEMPERATURE DAMAGE
In addition to controlling the physical environment within a package, efforts are being made to inhibit damage that may result from a lack of temperature control. During shipping, many pharmaceuticals must be kept at temperatures between 2° and 8°C. To help maintain this temperature range, manufacturers often place ice-mimicking gels known as phase-change materials (PCMs) inside the package. These gels, if not designed to withstand the appropriate temperature range, can potentially freeze pharmaceuticals shipped in cold weather.
To keep products from freezing, manufacturers use various combinations of temperature-regulating materials along with insulation that keeps them away from the product. All this can make for a bulky, expensive package.
Custom-printed tapes from 3M Packaging Systems Div. make tampering more evident.
A gel that "phases"—freezes and melts—at temperatures above 0°C has been developed by TCP/Reliable Inc. (Edison, NJ) in an effort to streamline pharmaceutical packaging. As its name suggests, Phase 4 changes phase at temperatures close to 4°C. Inside a package, two Phase 4 packets can replace several conventional gels and the barrier materials that keep the product from touching them. "You can put [Phase 4] right up against a pharmaceutical and it won't freeze," says Sanford Cook, president of TCP/Reliable.
Other companies are developing similar phase-change materials. FDC Packaging Inc. (Medfield, MA) is working on a material that changes from a solid to a liquid at around 5°C, according to Lawrence Gordon, president of the company. The bad news, says Gordon, is that the new materials can cost 5 to 10 times more than conventional gels.
Of course, there's more to controlling interior temperature than what you put inside a package. The package itself must be a good insulator. Insulation is the key feature of Softbox from DHL Worldwide Express (South Plainfield, NJ). In combination with interior coolants, Softbox is designed to maintain temperatures between 2° and 8°C or below –20°C.
Softbox is a patented container used to transport pharmaceuticals, clinical trial supplies, and diagnostic specimens. The box is constructed by winding polyethylene around a foam, with many thin layers trapping air between them. This configuration provides excellent protection from external air temperature, according to Clive Bryant, DHL's pharmaceutical industry director. In testing for the Asian market, Softbox held up well to an ambient temperature of 30°C and a relative humidity of 60%. Under these conditions, the box maintained an interior temperature of 2° to 8°C for 96 hours, Bryant reports.
The process used to make the Softbox allows DHL to manufacture boxes in many different sizes without major tooling costs. "If we introduce a product that's unique in shape, we can ask the manufacturer to make the box a different size, and they can do it at a relatively low cost," says Tom Nederbo, director of distribution and logistics for Amersham Pharmacia Biotech (Piscataway, NJ). Right now, DHL can't make boxes large enough to suit some manufacturers who ship bulk pharmaceuticals. The company is developing winding machinery that will allow it to create pallet-sized boxes, Bryant says.
In addition, all Softboxes are 100% recyclable. "That really sold us on it," says Nederbo. "From a green standpoint, it's a good marketing edge."
Like Softbox, the Deep Chill shipper from Polyfoam Packers Corp. (Wheeling, IL) provides tight temperature control for pharmaceutical products. Deep Chill is a hybrid system consisting of molded-expanded polystyrene lined with vacuum-insulated panels (VIPs). Heat cannot travel through the vacuum inside the panels because there are no molecules to transmit it. This type of insulation, used in a variety of applications from shipping containers to spacecraft, is extremely efficient, according to Kevin Grogan, market manager for Polyfoam Packers. "There's nothing on the market that approaches it," he says. "Even the thickest urethane container may be 50 or 60% less efficient than a vacuum-insulated panel."
However, if a VIP is punctured, the interior vacuum is lost, and the R-value (measure of resistance to heat transfer) of the panels plummets from 30 to around 5. To help prevent punctures, companies like Polyfoam Packers are protecting the panels on the inside with liner boards.
Using recommended assembly and design procedures, Deep Chill panels can extend shipping time by a factor of 10 in some cases. Grogan estimates that interior temperature can be maintained on trips as long as 12 days.
Although vacuum insulation is more expensive than expanded polystyrene or urethane, it offers benefits through extended shipping times, reduced shipping weight and size, or increased shipment volume. Because of the cost, Deep Chill is aimed primarily at manufacturers who ship high-value pharmaceuticals and those experiencing temperature-related losses.
Deep Chill might also be the answer for manufacturers who want to ship temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals to other countries. "There are people who have a new product and want to ship it overseas but haven't been able to do it," Grogan says. "This allows them to get it there without the integrity being compromised."
Additional advances in temperature-sensitive packaging have been made by Advantek Inc. (Minnetonka, MN) and Kryotrans Ltd. (Buckinghamshire, UK). Advantek Inc. has introduced the Vaculok Thermal Packaging system, a standard shipping container that combines vacuum insulation with a tamper-evident feature. The transport packaging products from Kryotrans feature separate tamper-evident compartments and pressure-injected insulation foam.
Offering transport containers suitable for different temperatures from a 2° to 8°C range, –80°C, and from a 4° to –40°C range, the Kryotrans containers are equipped with built-in data loggers that essentially "ensure that the absolute integrity of the contents are maintained," says John Pring, technical director of the company.
DEALING WITH DAMAGE
Liquid pharmaceuticals and biochemicals are almost always shipped in both primary and secondary containers. Even so, sometimes damage to package contents cannot be prevented.
Unveiled at Pack Expo International 2000 in Chicago last November, a new secondary container called Liquicore offers extra protection against leakage. Developed by Technicor Inc. (Amherst, NY), Liquicore is a cylinder with a core made of super-absorbent polymer. If the primary container breaks or leaks, Liquicore's inner wall absorbs the liquid. If necessary, the core can absorb up to 100% of the liquid in the primary container, according to Michael Hacikyan, president of Technicor.
Liquicore's main purpose is to protect the people handling potentially dangerous liquids. "We can virtually guarantee the safety of the handler," says Daryl Molino, lead engineer for the Liquicore development project.
In addition, Liquicore can maintain the integrity of a blood or urine sample leaking from its primary container. The polymer core attracts the leaking liquid, which adheres to the polymer molecules. To extract the liquid, a proprietary fluid is injected into the core. The fluid detaches the sample molecules from the polymer and carries them to a centrifuge, where they are separated from the fluid.
By using different polymers, Technicor can customize the core to absorb different liquids. "We can absorb 80–90% of chemicals and all types of clinical specimens," Molino says. The company can also tweak the core to speed up absorption or neutralize harmful liquids.
When pharmaceuticals are shipped in single parcels rather than in pallet-sized loads, the number of "touch points" can increase by a factor of 10, according to Bill Wolf, marketing manager of box-sealing tapes for 3M Packaging Systems Div. (St. Paul, MN). "That's important from a security standpoint," he notes. "If you increase the number of touch points, you increase the opportunities for people to get into that box."
Today, people are breaking into pharmaceutical parcels by lifting, slitting, and even freezing the tape around it. Often, the box is resealed in ways that make it hard to detect the tampering.
To make tampering easier to notice, 3M has introduced Scotch Tamper Indicating Tape 3559. When 3559 is pulled up, some of its adhesive forms the word "alert" in a repeated pattern. "When you seal that box again, you're never going to align all those 'alert' messages with the backing you've lifted up," Wolf explains. "So the person who receives the box will be able to tell right away that something's wrong."
New packaging technologies are doing more than just protecting products during transport; they are letting packagers quantify transportation hazards before shipping. "In the past, we never knew exactly what happened during distribution," notes Dennis Young, a Michigan-based consultant specializing in transportation packaging. "Now we have the ability to actually measure what happens and apply that information."
Typically, packagers are interested in four types of transport hazards, which are shock, vibration, compression, and atmospheric hazards such as temperature, humidity, and pressure. To gather such data, small battery-powered instruments are being placed inside packages or attached to vehicles. On occasion, the instruments are left in storage facilities to measure atmospheric conditions over a period of time. Data gathered from these instruments are used for package design and testing.
For one client, Young is measuring temperature and humidity in a package assembly area every 6 minutes for a year to get a representative profile of how these values change over time. Young is also working with a manufacturer interested in temperature and humidity measurements taken from the inside of packages. "Dummy" packages containing recording devices are being used to gather the data. The packages are sent to areas where long-range forecasts predict hot or cold weather. When they reach their destination, they are shipped back to their starting point, where the data are off-loaded into a computer for analysis. In all, about 80 dummy packages will be sent out in search of environmental extremes, as well as more-typical conditions.
What justifies such an elaborate process? "If you don't do this, you're still going to have a package that can handle a certain level of hazard," Young explains. "If that level is too low, the hazards of distribution will get you and you'll have damage. If the level is too high, the package will be too robust and you'll have spent too much money."
A possible solution to the damage-tracking problem may be transport containers with data logging capabilities. Containers such as those from Kryotrans that feature integrated loggers make audit trails possible, which can, in turn, reduce the regulatory cycle, says Sean Flanagan, CFO of Kryotrans. Display features of the loggers include maximum and minimum temperature, flashing when parameters are breached, and trip number.
Manufacturers may also be able to use packaging data gathered by others rather than gathering their own. This year, Young expects the International Safe Transit Association to unveil a transport database that packagers can tap into. Already up and running is a service that sells transport data via the Internet. "We're offering different levels of information on the handling quality of the global distribution system," says Greg Hoshal, CEO of SafeShip International Inc. (Verona, NJ).
SafeShip offers several products through its Web site. It provides handling data that help users choose the best carrier for a shipment from one location to another. At the other end of the spectrum is an engineering-level product called SafeDesign, which offers detailed data on the temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, vibration, drop height, and other conditions a package would encounter if a certain carrier were to transport it from one point to another. Designers can use the data to craft packages that will provide sufficient product protection during the journey.
To gather data, SafeShip sends out packages called Smartpacks, which look like standard packages but contain sophisticated instruments that measure a wide range of environmental conditions. The company sends out roughly 2000 test shipments a month, most of which are handled by four major shippers—the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, Federal Express, and Airborne Express. "Before we started our data collection, everybody thought that all the carriers were more or less the same," Hoshal says. "But that's not the case. There are significant differences in handling quality among carriers that are really quite surprising."
SafeShip has amassed statistically valid carrier data covering "a pretty large part of the U.S.," Hoshal says. But he cautions packagers against reading too much into the numbers. "We're providing statistical scientific data that have significant predictive reliability," he says. "But it's not an absolute guarantee."