Seeing Is Believing
TBI, a non-profit network of eye and tissue donor banks, relies on supply chain management to expedite time- and temperature-sensitive shipments to doctors and hospitals worldwide.
What does it take to deliver miracles? While divine intervention may seem like a logical answer, seamless supply chain collaboration is its own blessing. Just ask any of the 10,000 people who have regained their eyesight thanks to donated cornea tissues shipped by Tissue Bank International (TBI) and John S. Connor Inc., a Baltimore, Md.-based freight forwarder and customs broker.
For the past six years, the TBI non-profit network of eye and tissue banks, also based in Baltimore, has worked with Connor to expedite shipments of donor cornea tissues to doctors and hospitals worldwide.
Since TBI conceived the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland in 1962, matching cornea demand with available donor tissues has been its core mission. Today, its U.S. network numbers 33 facilities, and it has extended its global outreach, International Federation of Eye and Tissue Banks (IFETB), to include more than 40 facilities worldwide. TBI has similarly leveraged its network to expand its recovery program to include bone, ligament, tendons, and other human tissues.
In 1997, a fortuitous encounter between a Connor employee and TBI brought the forwarder and eye bank together and they began collaborating to expedite shipments across the world.
"One of our supervisors had known about TBI's activity—he had previously worked in the airline industry—so he offered our services," says Lee Connor, president, John S. Connor.
Connor's location and flexibility afforded TBI the reliability it needed to ensure shipments were expeditiously delivered to their intended consignees, adds Sameera Farazdaghi, manager, tissue distribution and information center, TBI.
Freight Forwarding Flexibility
Connor's business is all about options. The company began as an ocean freight forwarder at the Port of Baltimore in 1917 under the pioneering vision of Lee Connor's grandfather. It has since evolved into a multi-modal business with expertise in ocean and air freight. Because of its size and approach, Connor can tailor solutions to specific client needs.
" We handle pretty much anything from 120,000-ton ocean shipments of coal to air shipments with one small case of eye tissues," notes Connor.
Connor's business acumen and size matched TBI's expectations and needs. Given the unanticipated demand and volume of donor tissue shipments, their special handling requirements and stringent time parameters, the eye bank needed a partner that was flexible and responsive enough to accommodate their shipment demands at a moment's notice.
" We never know in advance where or when a package is going," says Farazdaghi. " We usually have a 24-hour head start on getting it shipped, and not much more than that. There's not much time in terms of planning."
Aside from the obvious sensitivity of eye tissue shipments, they have to be transported with wet ice to ensure they remain viable for future use. In this context, " viable" means fresh, but not frozen, notes Farazdaghi. " The shipments have to maintain a temperature of two to six degrees Centigrade. They cannot be frozen, which eliminates the use of dry ice."
The corneas are shipped in Styrofoam boxes that measure 12 by 12 by 18 inches in dimension, weighing (with wet ice) between one to two pounds, depending on the number of corneas in the package. Shipments packed in wet ice have a shelf life of approximately 24 hours, says Farazdaghi, so the sense of urgency in delivering these packages is keen.
"As soon as we get information about a donor tissue, we immediately notify Connor," she says. " The shipment may be ready to leave today or tomorrow, depending on where in the United States the tissue is located."
All the donor tissues are shipped from their unique locations to the Baltimore facility, notes Toby Devens, director of public information, TBI. " It's a hub and spoke system."
TBI then relies on Connor to take care of all booking and routing arrangements, as well as to " virtually" tag along for the ride to make sure everything goes according to plan and to manage exceptions.
Once Connor has been informed of a shipment's status and intended destination, " we give TBI their options," says Lee Connor. " When TBI delivers its shipment(s) to us or to the airline, we have the booking secured and the documents prepared. Then we can marry it up with the freight and make sure it gets to consignees in time so they can expedite customs and get the shipment to the final destination."
Preparing the Shipment
Depending on available flights, the shipment can either fly out of Dulles or BWI Airports, where Connor operates two branch offices.
"If it has to go out through Dulles, we prepare the air bill, set up the routing, and send that information to TBI's office," says Dale Harris, general manager at J.S. Connor's BWI office. " TBI, in turn, gives it to its personnel or a dedicated courier to take it directly to the airline. If the shipment routes out through Baltimore, TBI brings the package to us. We marry it up with the documentation and have our own person take it directly to the plane."
Connor also makes sure that the airline is aware of the material and its sensitive nature and is prepared to process it and make appropriate contact upon arrival, adds Harris.
Perhaps the greatest irony about TBI and Connor's partnership is that shipment visibility is understated. Rather, on-time arrival is the expectation, and there are no exceptions.
Connor has the technological nuts and bolts to offer TBI and its consignees visibility with online track and trace capabilities—but the reality for both TBI and its consignees is that a shipment " must" arrive within the 24-hour window. " Instead of using Connor's track and trace solution, we call them, and they tell us what we need to know," says Farazdaghi.
This " inherent visibility and collaboration" similarly carries over to customs clearance at the final destination. " Many customers want us to arrange customs clearance at the point of arrival, but not TBI. It's because of the perishable nature of the product and the fact that the consignees know what they have to do to expedite the clearance process," says Connor.
Cost margins are tight moving small shipments via express air parcel service. Given the urgent and random circumstances of transporting donor tissues, there is only so much cost that can be driven out of the process. But that is a realization that both TBI and Connor readily accept. What it really drills down to is the human element.
"We're looking for a balance between efficiency and personal service," says Devens. " This is important because people on the other end are waiting to see again."