Saga Card: End-to-End Visibility in Pharmaceutical Supply Chains

03.05.2024 by Annalena Rauen

Box of Covid-19 vaccines in close-up


From production to the patient: how a smart IoT device with a built-in nuSIM enables pharmaceutical manufacturers and logistics service providers to gain unprecedented insight into their supply chains and prevent waste.

Covid-19 brought pressure to bear on pharmaceutical manufacturers all over the world. Patients had to be supplied with vaccines on the double. As a result, supply chains quickly reached their limits. Instead of shipping drugs to its usual 500 distribution centers, a U.S. manufacturer—one of the world’s top 5 pharma companies—suddenly had to supply vaccines directly to 70,000 destinations including hospitals and clinics, which was a complicated logistics challenge. That was where Controlant kicked in with its real-time supply chain visibility solution. The global provider, headquartered in Iceland, was able to draw on its experience with swine flu a few years earlier (see Infobox) and offer drug manufacturers a tried and tested IoT solution that enabled them to keep an eye on the supply chain and respond to deviations in real time. Now, Controlant – in partnership with Deutsche Telekom and a range of other partners – has announced the Saga Card, a new monitoring device that can follow the path of medication from production to the patient.

The Challenges that Pharmaceutical Supply Chains Face

Why does that matter? Transportation of pharmaceutical products is subject to strict regulations. Above all, the cold chain must be maintained at every step of the way. When extreme fluctuations in temperature during shipping or storage exceed a given medicine’s temperature stability profile, patient safety can be compromised. In these cases, the medications and vaccines must be discarded by law, and with good reason.

According to management consultants Roland Berger, on an annual basis this translates to around $35bn in losses for the pharmaceutical industry. That includes the value of lost product as well as the cost of re-manufacturing and re-distributing replacement stock, and of investigating root causes. If the supply chain is disrupted, medications may arrive late, which impacts the end user: the patient. Product losses are also a serious burden on the environment. To make deliveries on time, companies regularly move replacement supplies by air freight, which can double the greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that patient safety is the pharmaceutical industry’s highest priority, supplies of lifesaving medicines above all must never run out. That is why companies lacking visibility into the supply chain need to maintain large safety stocks, further increasing financial and environmental costs. And even if everything goes according to plan in the supply chain management, drugs that are not needed will pass their expiration date. “Whether damaged, lost, or expired, that adds up to a whole lot of waste all round,” says Gunnar Sigurdsson, Product Manager at Controlant.

Controlant: From Super Jeep to Medicines and Vaccines

A group of friends studying at the University of Iceland founded Controlant in 2007 with the idea of connecting mobile sensors via the cellular network. The startup’s first assignment was to monitor the tire pressure of the popular Super Jeeps that take adventurers to Icelandic glaciers. Later, supporting the local distribution of the swine flu vaccine was an early step toward the pharmaceutical industry and the realization that Controlant’s monitoring solution was just what the industry needed. During Covid-19, Controlant emerged as one of the leading firms engaged in digitizing medical shipments. The company now works with 12 of the world’s leading pharmaceutical enterprises and logistics service providers to make pharmaceutical supply chains safer, more efficient, sustainable, and transparent.


How the Internet of Things Makes Supply Chains more Transparent

Technologies that enable real-time supply chain transparency such as IoT monitoring provide insights into shipping conditions and locations and thereby facilitate swift intervention to maintain product integrity. Controlant’s tried and tested solution for monitoring deliveries is its Saga Logger, an IoT device similar in same size to a packet of headache tablets. It can be used to monitor a container or a pallet of boxes of medications from production, through the manufacturer’s warehouse to the logistics center. “With our new Saga Card,” says Gunnar, “we are now extending visibility in the supply chain—from production to the patient.”

Controlant’s Saga Card

Controlant’s Saga Card fits into a packet of medications

Saga Card: Joint Innovation for More Efficient Pharmalogistics

The Saga Card was developed by Controlant in partnership with a consortium consisting of Deutsche Telekom, Nordic Semiconductor, Avery Dennison, CCL Design, Imprint Energy, and Sodaq. It is no larger and just a little thicker than a credit card. That has several advantages. It fits into a carton or even a single packet of medications. So the product’s condition can be monitored to a shelf in the pharmacy or, in future, potentially to a patient’s medicine cabinet.

Like the Saga Logger, the smart card incorporates sophisticated sensor technology. It measures the temperature en route and if need be, reports deviations from the threshold value to Controlant’s Aurora Cloud platform. “If a container full of drugs worth millions of dollars stands around for too long at an airport and is heated, we can make a phone call and prevent it from becoming a total write-off,” says Gunnar. “It happens more often than you might think.” Manufacturers can also receive automatic notification via the Cloud platform if disruptions occur during transportation.


With our new Saga Card we are now extending visibility in the supply chain from production to the patient.”

– Gunnar Sigurdsson, Product Manager at Controlant


During development, the consortium made careful considerations in the design of the device to ensure it met requirements of pharmaceutical manufacturers. The Saga Card can provide detailed location data throughout the transport route. Even opening the packaging is registered—inter alia by a light sensor. If required, everyone in the supply chain knows when and where the medication was used and therefore when it will expire or when the next shipment will be needed. An acceleration sensor records when a box is moved or is no longer on the move. All information can be accessed at any time via Controlant’s Cloud-based Aurora platform. Controlant uses the Internet of Things (IoT) for secure worldwide transmission of sensor data to the Cloud. Deutsche Telekom guarantees coverage in many parts of the world with its energy-efficient NB-IoT and LTE-M IoT networks and roaming agreements with more than 600 partners. “Along with Europe and North America we see strong demand in emerging markets like Turkey or India,” says Gunnar. “Telekom has helped us with that too.”


Built-in SIM for the Internet of Things

The NB-IoT and LTE-M mobile communication standards were specially developed for energy-saving IoT applications like the Saga Card. And the slender device incorporates not a conventional SIM card but a Telekom nuSIM. In this software-defined SIM, the SIM functions are a part of the chip. The benefits are that the nuSIM is inexpensive, energy-saving, and safe from manual access or external influences such as shocks or fluctuations in temperature. Especially useful for the Saga Card is the fact that the nuSIM takes up no additional space. The totally digital provision of nuSIM data also supports future mass production.

“Reducing the number of components and electronics was important for us,” says Gunnar. “We designed the Saga Card to be as sustainable as possible.” The power supply plays a part in that. The Saga Card is powered by a zinc battery printed on paper instead of a lithium battery. Like the nuSIM, it is eco-friendlier, costs less, and saves more space, which makes it ideal for the device’s slimline shape.

  • 70% of patients are worried that the medications they receive may have been handled inappropriately during transportation or storage
  • 82% expect drug manufacturers to disclose how they transport or store medications
  • 92% of pharmaceutical companies are planning to invest more in solutions to monitor drug production and the supply chain

(Source: Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Vision Study)


Advantages for All Stakeholders

The combination of design, sensor technology, nuSIM, and IoT mobile communication offers enormous benefits to everyone involved in the pharmaceutical supply chain:

  • Extended end-to-end visibility in the supply chain from production to the patient    On-time delivery to the right place in the required quality
  • Real-time data and notifications about location and condition possible even on the last mile
  • Better control over inventories and transport flow
  • Enormous safety reserves no longer needed
  • No lack of stocks of important medications
  • Reduced quarantine time for medicines and vaccines if their condition during transportation was unclear
  • In-time recognition of interruptions in the cold chain and of medications being opened
  • Enormous reduction in waste
  • Environmentally friendlier technology compared with conventional real-time monitoring solutions
  • Safe for shipping together with medications and by air freight

Ready for Personalized Medicine

A pilot phase with several large pharmaceutical corporations is ongoing in 2024 to put the Saga Card to the test in live operation. “While the initial focus will remain on more tangible use cases, such as end-to-end visibility and enhanced inventory monitoring, we are certainly aware that this technology advances the industry’s ability to make future concepts like personalized medicine an everyday reality,” says Gunnar. “We will then be able, if required, to monitor and verify the chain of condition for medications right to the clinic or even to the patient’s door, of course in compliance with data protection provisions.” Controlant says a general market launch is envisioned for 2025.


Digital Supply Chain: Smart, Robust, Successful

Digital Supply Chain: Smart, Robust, Successful

With our IoT solutions, supply chain managers create environmentally friendly flows of goods and increase efficiency throughout the entire value chain. The result? Cost savings, greater delivery reliability, and more satisfied customers.

More about the Digital Supply Chain

With our IoT solutions, supply chain managers create environmentally friendly flows of goods and increase efficiency throughout the entire value chain. The result? Cost savings, greater delivery reliability, and more satisfied customers.

More about the Digital Supply Chain

Stacked containers in a container port
Annalena Rauen
Annalena Rauen

Marketing Manager IoT

Back in 2016, Anna worked on IoT topics at Deutsche Telekom for the first time. Since then, she has been supporting customer best practices in a wide range of industries – always focusing on the benefits that the Internet of Things can provide. Her IoT blogposts describe real use cases and the value these innovations add to market players, their business models, and even entire industries.