Transportation Packaging: Taking the Costs Out of Thermal Packaging

Thermal transportation professionals are striving for longer shipping windows, lower dimensional weight, and ease of packout, while meeting customer demands for tight temperature control.



By David Vaczek, Senior Editor

ThermoSafe Durable Transport systems for pallet-sized loads of biosubstances can be customized with flexible doors, cargo stabilizers, shelves, and drains.

The increasing prevalence of drugs and medical devices requiring thermal protection during shipping has fueled interest in higher-performance packaging solutions. New cooling and insulative innovations are addressing issues such as shipping costs and the cumbersome handling and conditioning of gel packs. Traditionally, manufacturers of thermal packaging and transport logistics companies have successfully relied on solutions that employ the basic building blocks of water and poly foam. Modifying this approach, manufacturers are devising easier packouts.


For instance, Cold Chain Technologies Inc. (Holliston, MA) uses 0Þ Koolit foam bricks and polyurethane in its newest line of KoolTemp PUR containers. The KoolTemp Global Transportation Solution (GTS) prequalified shipper contains frozen and refrigerated bricks to maintain 2°–8°C temperatures for 48 hours under year-round conditions. “The GTS allows the same exact conditioning and packout for summer and winter. The packout is easy and quick using our Koolit foam bricks,” says Larry Gordon, president. Frozen bricks are situated in cavities separated by insulating material from the payload. The product payload area is refrigerated brick in a saddlebag form. As the ambient temperature goes above 8Þ, the frozen bricks insulate the container. In winter, “the container has been designed so that the frozen bricks don’t adversely impact the refrigerated bricks,” says Gordon. The 36-lb box is also qualified at 72 hours at -20Þ using dry ice.

The Where and Who of Shipment Monitoring

Cold Chain favors water-based gels over other phase-change materials (PCMs) because they mantain a constant temperature, the eutectic state, for a longer time when melting. They have a significantly higher heat absorbing capacity, and they are far less costly and nontoxic than other PCMs, Gordon says. “We feel we can hit our temperatures without using hydrated salts or paraffin PCMs. Water has remarkable thermal stability and heat-absorption characteristics. When water melts, it holds one very precise temperature, while with hydrated salts the temperature will vary considerably.”

Cold Chain is presently prequalifying the va-Q-Tainer, a transport container for pallets. It is constructed of vacuum-insulated panels (VIPs) protected by layers of urethane, birch wood, and metal and fiberglass sheathing. “Because of its R-value, this passive shipper is able to maintain 2º to 8ºC for 96 hours under both summer and winter conditions,” Gordon says.

Envirocooler (Huntington Beach, CA) uses premolded polyurethane designs, such as its Ice Locker and Convection Engine, in solutions including its BioSphere and Cryosphere pallet shipper solutions. The insulative designs allow faster and easier universal packouts for varying product loads.

Shippers don’t require additional static material to buffer frozen gel packs or the use of refrigerated gel packs that might freeze in winter. “We can calculate the amount of frozen gel pack and thickness of the insulative walls required to maintain a constant temperature. The insulation acts as a valve. Whatever the ambient temperature, the same amount of energy passes through the wall into the product cavity,” says CEO Rod Derifield.

“We emit no CFCs or HCFCs, so we can manufacture anywhere in the world. We are Montreal protocol compliant through 2030,” he says.


Polar Tech Industries Inc. (Genoa, IL) controls costs by using expanded polystyrene (EPS) in its package and pallet solutions. “Our clients are not willing to pay eight times the cost for a VIP, or twice the cost for urethane. EPS is suitable for 90% of the applications we see,” says Don Santeler, president, Polar Tech. “Since 1994, we have been educating and assisting people to focus on the size and placement of refrigerants and on the importance of surrounding the product with refrigerants,” he says.

In packaging where refrigerants are placed on top only or spaced away from the product, “the product then becomes a refrigerant. You want the heat to stress the gel packs.” Loose refrigerants can migrate out of position when packages are mishandled or jostled, creating hot and cold spots. “Packages during the shipping cycle are not in the upright position 80% of the time, and thus they are subject to heat exposure if refrigerants migrate or insufficient sizes are used.

Surrounding the perishable products with refrigerant packs has been recommended since 1994 by Polar Tech and Federal Express, after extensive research,” Santeler says.

Addressing shipping cost, Polar Tech has introduced its Nestable Overnight Shipping Containers. They nest together, allowing users to pack twice as many in the same space. Customers are testing Polar Tech’s new ThermoChill modular system for pallets and large bulk container systems. For completely wrapping the pallet, ThermoChill employs a saddlebag Cold Pocket system for holding refrigerants or dry ice. An Ice Box refrigerant container can be placed at the bottom of the pallet or interleafed between tiers. The bulk load is covered by a barrier pallet bag and a vinyl-coated nylon insulative pallet cover. “We are totally surrounding the product with cold. It is like being in a refrigerator,” says Santeler.

Increased scrutiny by regulatory authorities of the transportation of temperature-sensitive products as well as the desire to drive out costs has prompted more interest by companies in optimal packaging. SCA ThermoSafe Brands (Arlington Heights, IL) provides thermal design and testing services in its ISC Labs design and testing center. “People are realizing they can tweak their gel pack-outs and avoid over- or underengineering. We provide software modeling based on customer-specified needs, such as if they want to increase their shipping times. They are qualifying the package for a particular transportation route. The software creates more-precise, more-accurate thermal profiles,” says Kevin Grogan, director of marketing and business development, SCA ThermoSafe Brands.

Grogan says that more companies are interested in durable, reusable solutions, which allow cutting packaging disposal costs. ThermoSafe Durable Transport insulated containers provide refrigerated and frozen transport temperatures for 24, 48, and 96 hours. Options include Flex-Seal flexible doors, false floors, cargo stabilizers, drains, shelving, and 1–3 in. urethane foam walls. “These containers are ideal for shipping and safekeeping of biologicals, specimens, and other uses such as hazardous materials. They cost more than EPS insulated containers, but they are more economical because people can use them for five or six years,” says Grogan.

The latest shipper in the ThermoSafe Durable Transport line is a bulk transporter for pallet-sized loads that is secured to its own 40 × 61-in. aluminum pallet. Temperatures are maintained without separate mechanical refrigeration. Cold is generated from gel packs or dry ice stored in an overhead, vented bunker, and circulated throughout the shipper. An inlaid thermometer is visible on the front door.

Other suppliers have viewed heavy gel packs and bulky foams as a challenge for improvements. Solutions reduce dimensional weight and eliminate gel pak handling. In Kodiak Thermal Technologies Inc.’s (Houston) premolded, reusable Cold Chain shipping system, the phase-change refrigerant is contained in a lid, encased in VIPs. “Typical gel pack and foam insulation packaging requires an 8–10-step process after you have developed a protocol and configured the package so it will arrive intact, both from a physical and temperature standpoint. With the Kodiak Cold Chain Shipper, you pull the lid out of the freezer and put it in the box. All the thermal regulation occurs in the lid itself,” says Don Pagel, Kodiak’s CEO.


With the refrigerant out of the way, Kodiak’s Cold Chain shipper provides cargo space of 36 liters, or four to six times the space available in a expanded polystyrene container. In soon to be released units, Kodiak has redesigned the base, moving the data logger to the lid. That has allowed development of modular smaller sizes, from 7 to 14 liters. The premolded shipper features a temperature-regulating system where the refrigerant connects to a thermal shield surrounding the payload only when the internal temperature hits a set point. The frozen material isolated in the lid lasts longer, since it is not always drawing heat. VIPs with an insulation R-factor of 38 surround the payload, helping to maintain internal temperatures for five or six days in an average ambient temperature of 25ÞC. The standard configuration for refrigerated temperatures uses a -1Þ PCM.

“We picked -1Þ as the temperature for the phase change and then designed the switch with that in mind. This gives us a little more spread between the temperature you are trying to maintain and the temperature of the phase change. The wider the difference in temperature [between those two points], the faster the heat will transfer,” says John Howe, executive vice president and COO for Kodiak.

This year, Kodiak largely discontinued its rental strategy. “The strategy was not as effective as we had hoped, because of the control required by pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturers. We are selling units direct to pharmaceutical and logistics companies and working with other users such as military and state healthcare organizations,” Pagel says.

NanoCool LLC (Albuquerque, NM) has launched a shipper that features a lid-mounted cooling unit in which water evaporates at low pressure. Cooling begins 20 seconds after activation, and a thermochromic ink label begins turning blue, indicating that the device is working. NanoCool is a joint venture of NanoPore Inc. (Albuquerque) and Meadwestvaco Corp. (Stamford, CT).

Designed for pharmaceutical and medical products such as vaccines and precooled syringes, the unit holds from 2Þ to 8ÞC temperature for 48 hours under a constant 30ÞC ambient temperature, says Steve Pohlmann, general manager, NanoCool. Thin VIPs insulate the payload compartment. The shipper is up to 70% smaller for the same payload size compared with conventional poly or styrofoam packages, helping reduce shipping costs. The evaporation technology provides about seven times the cooling power of melting ice, says Pohlmann.

“The cooling accelerates when it is warmer and slows down as it cools. If the temperature lowers to 20°C, for example, we would see an extra one to four days of cooling,” he says.


VIPs have reduced dimensional weight using smaller packages, reduced coolant weight, and extended shipping times. ThermoCor, AcuTemp’s VIP solution, achieves an insulative R factor value of 40 to 50 per inch thickness. “We can do a 1¼2-in. panel and give you about the same performance that you would get with one inch of conventional VIP, says Chris Meyer, product manager for high-performance insulations, AcuTemp (Dayton, OH).

Unlike VIPs comprised of open-celled poly materials, ThermoCor is a small-diameter microfiber. “It actually feels like a blanket. In recent months, we have begun using ThermoCor in our line of one-time and multiple-use shipping boxes,” Meyer says.

Due to its higher-barrier properties, it can be employed in thinner, moreconformable panels for use with rigid box structures, he adds.


Shippers are achieving wider shipping windows and tighter temperature control using water-based gels and foams, PCM gels designed to hold temperatures at varying phase changes other than 0ÞC, high-performance insulative materials, and other new technologies. Cost pressures and the opportunity to experiment with new forms of thermal regulation are promising continuing innovation.

“Most of the industry hasn’t progressed from foams and gels; it’s time for something else,” says Sandy Cook, president of Thermal Packaging Solutions (Ocean, NJ), which provides packaging consulting, validation, and shipping route logistics services.

Thermal Packaging Solutions is working with a pharmaceutical manufacturer/supplier developing a gel-less solution that controls temperature using technology borrowed from the aerospace industry, employing “materials that interact with each other physically and reduce size and weight of protective packaging,” says Cook.

“The insulating material we use happens to be more efficient, but it doesn’t have to be because the process of temperature control is so much more efficient, you don’t need as much insulation. We generate cold air well beyond what gels could do at an equivalent weight,” Cook says.

“We hope to have this validated soon. I believe it is going to blow the socks off the industry,” he says.


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