USAMMC-E modernization efforts improve efficiency, visibility of medical materiel

By C.J. LovelaceFebruary 29, 2024

New high-tech scales
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Jeanette Hoeh, a supply technician at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe, scans a box of medical supplies using a new scale system being piloted to streamline warehousing and distribution operations. The new “dimensioner” system incorporates a high-tech scale with optical features that can capture images and calculate the exact dimensions and weight of items being inventoried or readied for shipment. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
New cold-chain containers
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Workers at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe load a shipment of refrigerated medical items into a new cold-chain management container designed to hold temperatures between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius. The rugged, battery-powered units feature a self-regulated refrigeration system that can hold temperatures for 48 hours or more, ensuring medications, vaccines and other medical supplies reach their destination ready to be used. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- The U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe is modernizing its distribution operations through new technologies, exploring ways to improve efficiency, while saving time and money.

“We have a lot of process improvements in various stages of implementation right now and we’ve seen how they can be successful in streamlining operations and improving service to our customers,” said Lt. Col. Todd Schwarz, USAMMC-E’s deputy commander for support operations.

USAMMC-E, a direct reporting unit to Army Medical Logistics Command, serves as the theater lead agent for medical materiel, or TLAMM, for U.S. African Command, U.S. European Command and Department of State activities. It also supports medical materiel projection into U.S. Central Command.

The center maintains a warehouse inventory of more than 5,000 items and a catalog of more than 45,000 items. In recent years, USAMMC-E has received annual requests for Class VIII medical materiel valued up to $173 million.

One of the new technologies that has come online in recent months is a self-regulated cold-chain management solution that can maintain near-freezing temperatures for 48 hours or more during shipment, a key metric USAMMC-E leaders need to support customers beyond Germany’s borders.

“We went back and forth with [the vendor] on our requirements and they actually customized one of their existing products to meet our needs,” said Kenyatta Moses, USAMMC-E’s coordinator for temperature-sensitive medical products, or TSMP.

Center officials are also working to boost efficiency in warehouse operations, specifically with improvements to USAMMC-E’s conveyor belt system and new high-tech scale equipment that can measure, weigh and capture images of items being readied for customers.

“The whole premise behind these improvements is to come up to industry standards,” USAMMC-E Distribution Chief William Crews said. “Our overall goal is to improve efficiency and cut costs.”

Made of rugged polyurethane, the new cold-chain shipping containers feature 760 cubic liters of packing space inside, which equates to nearly 27 cubic feet, similar to a large household refrigerator. They are autonomous and feature a battery-powered refrigeration system that actively maintains temperatures between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius.

Schwarz said the equipment has been “100% successful” since they went into use in January, with temperatures only deviating by one degree or less during trips of 15 to 20 hours.

“That’s exactly what we were hoping for,” he said.

USAMMC-E has purchased two of the containers so far, primarily for shipping pharmaceuticals and other items requiring near-freezing temperatures. Schwarz noted, however, that they would not completely replace traditional packing and shipping methods, especially for closer customers.

“When I first arrived here in 2021-22, we lost nearly $90,000 worth of materiel due to temperature excursions in transit to our Bavaria customers in one season,” Schwarz said. “These new containers will minimize those exposures and prevent losses.”

Schwarz added they are evaluating the need for additional units, based on expected shipping volumes both inside Germany and outside to destinations in Spain, Italy and Great Britain, among others.

Each unit costs about $8,000 with a 10-year life span, “a great return on investment” considering prior losses under past processes, according to Schwarz.

As added layer of protection, USAMMC-E also has begun using shipment monitoring devices that, when placed inside the refrigerated container, feed real-time temperature and location data to operators who can notify recipients or shipping teams to intervene if necessary.

“It’s been a savior in a couple of instances,” Crews said of the monitoring system. “In addition to real-time temperatures, it provides precise location tracking in transit, along with light and humidity readings, which allows USAMMC-E personnel to provide that data direct on delivery to our customers.”

Among other ongoing initiatives, USAMMC-E is planning improvements to its existing warehouse conveyor belt system, including a complete rewire and software upgrades to add control and verification capabilities during materiel processing, Crews said.

“It has an upper and lower transit system that moves materiel in containers or boxes to scheduled areas, where they stop pending further guidance from an operator,” he explained. “Right now, the system is functional but we believe there are ways we can improve its operation.”

Additionally, USAMMC-E’s warehouse and distribution teams are piloting a new “dimensioner” system, using what’s essentially a high-tech scale with optical features that can capture images and calculate the exact dimensions and weight of items.

That information is then fed into a database, informing operators on spatial requirements and warehouse capacity, as well as helping in the coordination of shipping routes to customers.

Schwarz said they are currently renting one of the devices as they evaluate its effectiveness. If leaders decide to move forward, they plan to purchase two scales -- one for smaller items and another for large items -- to use in the warehouse.

“It has completely streamlined the way we manage materials for transportation and packaging requirements,” Schwarz said of the new scales. “This capability, along with the other improvements, will help us reduce costs and turnaround time, ultimately streamlining operations for the benefit of our customers and operational units.”