Sonoco ThermoSafe is known best for its passive cold-chain container technologies, which include one of the widest ranges of insulation materials, phase-change materials and packaging configurations in the industry. Now, through the acquisition of assets under the PharmaPort 360 brand from AAR, an aerospace equipment and services vendor, it is entering the sector dominated by highly engineered unit load devices (“ULDs,” as they are known in the industry), typically carried in cargo aircraft, and usually designed with onboard, powered refrigerative (“active”) equipment. For Sonoco ThermoSafe, the acquisition enables it to offer a more complete line of solutions to life sciences companies. For the pharma industry, it brings new life to an alternative to the ULDs from market leaders like Envirotainer, CSafe and Va-Q-Tec, which are typically used to ship pallet-sized loads.
“PharmaPort 360 is a strategic addition to our product offerings, making Sonoco ThermoSafe a valued partner for many global pharmaceutical and freight forwarding companies by providing the widest range of passive and active bulk temperature-controlled packaging solutions,” said Russell Grissett, VP of Sonoco ThermoSafe, in a statement. “Additionally, Sonoco’s global footprint and deep understanding of the temperature-assurance packaging market will help expand the availability of PharmaPort 360 active containers across global regions.” Under the agreement, Sonoco ThermoSafe will own and lease PharmaPort units, and AAR will continue to manufacture and provide aftermarket services for the units. (AAR provide maintenance and repair services to commercial and government air from 60 locations globally.)
PharmaPort has an interesting history, although it’s not clear as yet whether the original technology has been updated over the years. A Marietta, OH company, Farrar Scientific, first showed the PharmaPort in 2009, and was partner in a company called ULD Logistics to put the unit into commercial distribution. UPS came onboard with an exclusive licensing agreement to deploy the technology in its network; subsequently, a new company, Cool Containers, was formed to commercialize a PhamaPort unit optimized around a frozen (-20°C) temperature range. Then the technology was sold to AAR in 2014 and both ULD Logistics and Cool Containers apparently stopped doing business with the PharmaPort brand.
The original PharmaPort design might more properly be called a “semi-active” rather than active scheme, because the unit doesn’t generate cold in transit. Cold is stored in plates with a eutectic composition (a mixture that can absorb or give up heat at a defined temperature); battery-powered fans circulate cooling air (this is the “active” part), and vacuum panels provide insulation. Unlike most ULDs, which generally need to stay within an air cargo facility for business and customs-control reasons, the PharmaPort is a box that Sonoco ThermoSafe says can “transition easily through standard international air and ground transport systems”—thus providing an end-to-end logistics solution.
The PharmaPort 360 design that Sonoco ThermoSafe now owns is FAA approved for aircraft use, and the company says that it provides reliable 5°C service within an ambient temperature range of -40 to +60°C.
Temperature-controlled packaging vendors, including Sonoco ThermoSafe, have been aggressively developing passive containers large enough to convey pallets by air, as a cost-effective option relative to more expensive ULDs. With the PharmaPort acquisition, Sonoco ThermoSafe is straddling both options.