by Clint Boulton

At FedEx, sensors and analytics fuel COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Jan 26, 2021
AnalyticsDigital TransformationIT Leadership

FedEx is relying on insights from its SenseAware ID IoT system and Microsoftu2019s Azure machine learning software to ensure coronavirus vaccines reach their final destinations.

COVID-19 coronavirus testing / test tubes / syringe / face masks / infection / outbreak / pandemic
Credit: Michaela Dusikova / Getty Images

Global logistics companies play an outsize role in ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines get to healthcare systems worldwide. For one of those shipping companies a decade-long effort to perfect package tracking is paying off, enabling stakeholders to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of coronavirus medications.

FedEx is using a sophisticated technology network to keep tabs on the millions of vaccine vials en route through a sprawling logistics pipeline that includes pharmaceutical companies, ground and air transportation giants, and healthcare systems responsible for administering the medications.

The network includes sensors and a cloud analytics platform that helps stakeholders monitor the progress of shipments in near real-time, according to FedEx CIO Rob Carter. “The proliferation of the internet of things has created a whole new ecosystem” for logistics, Carter tells, adding that FedEx has been awarded more than 50 patents for sensor-based logistics.

As the pandemic rages on, distribution of coronavirus vaccines is the most important mission for pharmaceutical firms such as Pfizer and Moderna and their logistics partners in 2021. FedEx, United Parcel Service, DHL International and other delivery services companies ensure the medications are shipped in ultra-cold temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit, or -70 degrees Celsius. Such cold chain storage, as the process is known, is key because exposure to higher temperatures may spoil the serum or at least reduce its potency.

But with countries struggling to meet their vaccination targets, pharmaceutical companies are ramping up production, heaping additional pressure on partners to ensure the medications are stored properly and distributed in a timely fashion.

Sensors and analytics manage logistics

To help, FedEx affixes a SenseAware ID to each vaccine shipment. These small, bar-coded sensors transmits location data every two seconds via Bluetooth to WiFi access points or gateway devices throughout the FedEx Express network, Carter says.

Rob Carter, CIO, FedEx FedEx

Rob Carter, CIO, FedEx

When a driver scans the bar code with his or her handheld scanner it generates a “license plate,” or shipping code, to help FedEx track the package and predict its ability to meet service requirements, Carter says. Packages equipped with SenseAware ID sensors are tracked hundreds of times throughout their route, versus dozens of times with traditional package scanning protocols.

The copious amounts of data generated by SenseAware ID funnels into FedEx Surround, an analytics platform co-created with Microsoft and hosted on Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Surround harnesses historical data about FedEx routes and Zip codes, as well as external data sources such as weather, mapping, and other factors and runs it through Azure machine learning (ML) software.

This algorithmic approach helps FedEx to interpret conditions surrounding each package and to reroute a shipment before it can be delayed by storms, natural disasters, mechanical failures or incorrect addresses, among other hiccups.

In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, which are sensitive to higher temperatures, on-time deliveries are key to avoiding spoilage.

“The vaccines are among the most important shipments made in our history,” Carter says. “The main way to ensure temperature integrity is to get them where they’re intended to go in the timeframes they need to be delivered.”

ML fuels shipment predictions

Judson Althoff, executive vice president of Microsoft’s worldwide commercial business, offered the following Surround use case in a post on LinkedIn:

“Imagine if a pallet of vaccines were destined for transport from Michigan to California and the external data showed a high likelihood of delay because of weather,” Althoff wrote. “In that scenario, an alert would be triggered to customer service agents and operations planners, who could then put the shipment on another flight. It’s the difference between the vaccine getting to California on time and ready to go or not.”

Moreover, the ML capabilities mean that for every package shipped Surround will analyze past trends to identify ways to optimize shipping in the future.

FedEx product and leadership teams came to Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters in early 2020 to plan how Surround would work. Recognizing the “huge logistical challenge” and importance of tracking COVID-19 vaccines and other critical shipments, the companies convened several remote meetings comprising hundreds of people to develop Surround, Althoff says.

Algorithmic foresight is a growing trend in logistics, according to Gartner. The researcher says the availability of supply chain data, including IoT data and weather patterns, enables enterprises to extrapolate the current environment to better understand future scenarios and make profitable recommendations.

“With more available and reliable data, organizations are leveraging analytics to sense the disruption, comprehend its magnitude and impact on the supply chain, and formulate a response,” Gartner analysts Bart De Muynck and Carly West wrote in an August 2020 report.

FedEx is leaning into these trends as it seeks to help fulfill the mission of Operation Warp Speed, the federal plan for vaccination distribution. To ramp up their production, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is contemplating invoking the Defense Production Act, which would help meet his stated goal of giving 100 million shots in his first 100 days of office.

“We believe the future of IoT and sensor-based logistics is now,” Carter says.