Temperature Sensors Critical to New Infrastructure Supporting COVID-19 Vaccine

Temperature Sensors Critical to New Infrastructure Supporting COVID-19 Vaccine
Temperature Sensors Critical to New Infrastructure Supporting COVID-19 Vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech’s promising COVID-19 vaccine is a revelation in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But, it needs to be stored at about minus 70 degrees Celsius, a temperature cold enough to turn ice cream in an inedible block of ice that only specialized freezers can produce. This will create a need for cooling and refrigeration units around the world. Here, Claudia Jarrett, US country manager of industrial parts supplier EU Automation, explains why Industry 4.0 technology proves crucial in managing these new, ad hoc refrigeration systems.
 
The revelation that the successfully-trialed coronavirus vaccine will require such strict temperature controls has caught a lot of people off-guard. The scale of the COVID-19 epidemic—with 55.6 million worldwide cases at the time of writing—raises all kinds of questions about storage, and also transport. Given that most vaccines are stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius, a widespread infrastructure isn’t already in place.
 
The stability profile of the potential COVID vaccine is more uncertain, which means there is more chance it might degrade. During transport, from its place of manufacturer to the patient, the vaccine must not be removed from a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius more than four times. Yet, mistakes do happen and 25 per cent of vaccines reach their destination in a degraded state according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
 
Generally, this failure rate can be attributed to breaks in the cold chain. To repair these breaks, the pharmaceutical industry must turn to automation and Industry 4.0.
 
While other sectors—like automotive, food and electronics—have long used automation and other industrial technologies in their factories, it has been more difficult to roll-out these technologies on quite the same scale in pharma manufacturing. All industries have strict regulations, of course, but the pharmaceutical sector must be especially cautious in considering and auditing every change to guard public health.
 

Unified architecture

How can the pharmaceutical industry overcome these challenges to quickly implement a safe and secure new infrastructure for a COVID-19 vaccine?
 
One possible solution was demonstrated by Marchesini, the pharmaceutical packaging machinery specialist, at its Pianoro headquarters near to Bologna Italy. In April 2020, the company unveiled its new Industry 4.0 program design to gather and analyze data across machines, resulting in faster, more flexible and more efficient manufacturing processes to produce higher-quality goods at a reduced cost.
 
Integral to Marchesini’s roll-out was the idea that data in a variety of formats can be collected and processed using OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA), a machine-to-machine communications protocol for industrial automation. OPC UA is a service-oriented architecture (SOA) for better connectivity, better management of systems, and interoperability at all levels—what’s more, it is free and open source.
 
In this case, the OPC UA protocol is designed to transform Marchesini’s packaging lines from semi-closed systems to open ecosystems that better deliver and receive data form the outside world. This side-steps a common issue with Industry 4.0: that machines can’t talk to each other. First, OPC UA can interlink with the plant’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES) internally.
 
Second, it can greatly improve external communications with other organizations and machines in the supply chain. For instance, OPC UA could be crucial for securely creating and sharing serial codes for pharmaceuticals.
 

Working together

Better external communications will be essential in establishing a new, widespread infrastructure to support a COVID-19 vaccine. This will likely involve the support of organizations from different areas of industry—as during COVID-19’s first wave, when the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) department awarded $50 million in emergency funding to support US manufacturers in making personal protective equipment (PPE).
 
Already, some of these organizations are focusing on the cold chain. According to the Financial Times, Unicef aims to have 65,000 solar-powered cold fridges installed in low-income countries by the end of 2021.
 
Meanwhile, storing products at minus 70 degrees Celsius is nothing new for Thermo King, a global supplier of transport refrigeration and heating. For over 20 years, the company has supplied mobile refrigeration units to the marine industry, used to transport premium-grade sashimi tuna from the Mediterranean Sea to Japan and beyond.
 
Thermo King believes that, with minor modifications including more insulation and additional safety measures, its secure, temperature-controlled 10 or 20 foot container units can be used to transport a vaccine.
 

Smooth supply

The examples from Marchesini, Unicef and Thermo King put forward possible software and hardware solutions—but how can we guarantee these systems can work together, internationally, without any breaks in the cold chain? Improving the cold chain capabilities in the supply chain will require a huge network of time and temperature sensors in factories, warehouses, trucks, laboratories and pharmacies. 
 
At first glance, this approach might seem expensive. But it needn’t be—and instead, the best approach may lie in applying the latest specialist technologies, like sensors, as part of a low-cost digital retrofitting strategy. This where an industrial automation parts supplier, like EU Automation, can play a critical supporting role.
 
Retrofitted smart sensors can monitor the temperature of refrigerated products, whether stationary or in transport, throughout the supply chain. Using a network of sensors to calculate temperature algorithms, the equipment can detect when a temperature falls above or below an environment’s average temperature margins. Then software comes into play, tracking operations through SCADA systems and alerting human workers to any concerns through a human machine interfaces (HMI). .
 
Through these systems, companies throughout the supply chain, from the vaccine’s place of manufacturer to the patient, no matter where they are in the world. The result? A workable global infrastructure that can ensure an eventual coronavirus vaccine—whether it’s from Pfizer and BioNTech or another laboratory—is embraced as a revelation for mankind, rather than a headache.
  

About EU Automation

EU Automation stocks and sells new, used, refurbished and obsolete industrial automation spares. Its global network of preferred partner warehouses, and wholly owned distribution centres, enables it to offer a unique service within the automation industry, spanning the entire globe.  It provides worldwide express delivery on all products meaning it can supply any part, to any destination, at very short notice.

About The Author


Claudia Jarrett is US country manager of industrial parts supplier EU Automation.


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