All Eyes on Cold Chain Management

Guest blog by Robin Beesley from MHI Member Company JLT Mobile Computers

Cold chain management is all about making sure products keep the right temperature at all times – from the site of production to the final destination. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, cold chain management has been much talked about, as some of the COVID-19 vaccines require very cold temperatures throughout the entire product lifecycle. How to handle these vaccines highlights many of the cold chain challenges, and some regard this as an inflection point that will determine how cold chains are managed on a global scale for the coming decades.

For COVID-19 vaccines, the problems mainly revolve around transportation. But fabrication and storage are also challenging for many companies that deal with cold chain management, especially when it comes to IT – which is where rugged devices come into play.

Why consumer devices are not an option for cold environments

In cold storage facilities, IT devices are mainly used for order picking, inventory, maintenance, and quality control purposes. Computers are typically vehicle mounted, and tablets or scanners are oftentimes handheld. Such devices, however, need to be engineered for the environment they’re intended to operate in.
For regular computers and other consumer gadgets, the lowest operating temperate is usually 32°F or 0°C. In colder environments, the behavior of electronic components changes. Batteries will, for example, not perform as well and discharge faster in cold temperatures. If you’ve ever been skiing, you might have found your phone suddenly turn off, despite remaining battery life. The same could happen in a cold workplace.

In a cold environment, screens will also frost up making it difficult to read what’s on them. Frost can also cover camera and scanner ports. Moving back and forth between cold and dry areas causes condensation which, apart from making reading and scanning difficult, can also cause internal components to corrode or short-circuit. Typically, moisture will enter the devices via I/O ports and other connection points.

The cold also affects connectivity. For instance, ¬radio waves operate differently in a cold environment, reducing their range. In cold storage facilities walls are usually thick and insulated, which also affects the radio wave penetration negatively.

Consumer devices are not designed to be used with gloves; all too often, even those gloves designed for touchscreens don’t really work! For operators, who need to wear thick gloves in cold storage facilities, using a touchscreen or a keyboard is extra difficult, and mistakes are easily made.

Rugged IT – designed to withstand cold temperatures

And then there are rugged devices, where batteries can be specially designed for use in cold environments, releasing charge at a slower pace than most standard battery models. Allowing work to continue without the device having to be repeatedly charged during a shift. Not to mention, they can simply handle the cold and rebooting won’t be necessary.

Internal heaters can prevent frost and condensation forming on displays and touchscreens, while external protectors can stop cold and moisture from entering the devices. Both ensure trouble-free operation even when going in and out of a freezer storage.

To facilitate gloved operation, rugged keyboards or virtual keypads with larger keys can be used. Another important feature are special glass touchscreens, which guarantee full functionality down to temperatures of minus 30°C, can be used with gloves, and are also easy to wipe off and keep clean from ice and moisture.

For better connectivity, external antennas can be added or, if connection inside the cold storage is patchy or unavailable, third-party solutions that allow for session persistence can be installed. That way, data can be entered and stored without a connection, and then updated as soon as the device regains signal.

There’s a large choice of device configurations to make rugged devices fit for the demands of cold storage environments. With the right configuration, these rugged devices will keep operations running smoothly day after day, year after year. But knowing what to look or ask for requires a lot of expertise that can be difficult and time consuming to acquire and it’s important to seek the advice of experts in the field.