Inside Look: The Magic Behind Vaccine Vial Monitors and Other Temperature Sensing Technologies

It only took a few minutes in a New Jersey manufacturing facility for this Wisconsinite to see why temperature monitoring solutions are hotter than ever in cold chains.

Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson takes a tour of the Morris Plains, NJ, facility where temperature monitoring technologies are manufactured
by Nicholas Heenan
May 16, 2022

The past two years have presented a challenging test for the citizens of humanity. Survival has become a repetitive, tedious series of chores, including the wearing of masks, establishing a six-foot bubble around oneself, and persistent sanitization of persons and surfaces. The idea was to implement preventative measures as a holding action until science could swoop in like an avenging superhero and save the day. And my company, Zebra, proved to be an integral part of that deliverance.

The Heat Might Be On, but We Won’t Let It Stop Us

Since 1996, nearly 10 billion vaccine vial monitors (VVM) have been manufactured in Morris Plains, New Jersey, by a team of nearly 100 at a 55,000-square foot Zebra Supplies facility. If you were to average that out, it would equate to approximately 400 million VVMs a year. Except, that annual breakdown doesn’t reflect reality. 

Nearly one billion of those 10 billion VVMs were manufactured in 2021 alone!  

These numbers don’t even account for the other temperature sensing and monitoring technologies that are produced in this building each year for other cold chain monitoring needs. Everything from food and beverages to beauty products, pharmaceuticals and even fresh flowers are considered perishable and, thus, must remain under strict temperature observation while moving throughout the supply chain.

I knew they were doing important work in Morris Plains, but I didn’t fully grasp the extent of their efforts until I experienced them myself.

An urgent call came in May 2021 from leaders at the legacy Temptime plant asking for team members to help package shipments of temperature indicators that monitor COVID-19 vaccine vials for potential heat exposure as they work their way to administration sites. Normally, I spend my days in the Quality Assurance Lab at the Zebra Supplies plant in Greenville, Wisconsin, checking the product that comes off our lines to ensure that it meets our customers’ specifications and our quality standards. So, I jumped at the chance to experience Zebra life outside the comfortable confines of Wisconsin. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my work life!

Arriving the day after Memorial Day, my partner and I were immediately given a tour of the facility. While we encountered processes and machines that were familiar to us as Supplies employees, we were also introduced to the concept that makes Zebra’s HEATmarker® VVMs and other temperature sensing products so special: a series of compounds that allow indicators to alter their appearance based on the environment in which they are located. It’s utterly mesmerizing to see in real time. During this initial tour, we witnessed this scientific wizardry firsthand.  

A Zebra worker demonstrates how temperature sensors are made.

While Luz Arias, a shift supervisor at the facility gave us a brief primer on the process, she slapped one of the VVMs on a door near us. These temperature indicators are designed to be kept in a frozen environment until they are placed on the product that they will monitor; they will change color if left exposed to temperatures that are too warm for too long. 

The indicator the supervisor was showing us was so sensitive that by the time she finished her one-minute explanation, the indicator had already altered its appearance.

It was incredible! 

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson and Chief Product Officer Bill Burns. They also got an up-close look at the chemistry and real-world application of temperature monitors in a recent plant tour and admitted they were equally impressed! 

Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson takes a tour of the Morris Plains, NJ, facility where temperature monitoring technologies are manufactured

What I found just as cool is that the chemistry is customizable. With slight alterations to the various formulas, the indicators can be adjusted to cover a nearly unlimited range of temperature and time profiles. It becomes instantly obvious how products like the Zebra HEATmarker VVM-7 are critical components for the distribution of life-saving vaccines with strict temperature requirements.

A Zebra employee demonstrates how a temperature sensor is made at the Morris Plains facility

Manufacturing the Technology That Helps Build Trust in Pharmaceutical Supply Chains 

For the next two weeks, I had the distinct pleasure of working with several members of the Morris Plains, NJ, plant team in the shipping area.  

We retrieved the newly manufactured COVID-19 vaccine vial temperature indicators from one of several walk-in freezers on site, scanned them into the computerized spreadsheets, packaged them, and transported the cases to the departure area, where they would be seen off to their destination: a pharmaceutical customer halfway around the world.  

A Zebra employee demonstrates how a temperature sensor is used in a cold chain shipment

There, they would be used to constantly monitor COVID-19 vaccines, alerting the end-user – a pharmacist, physician, nurse, or other vaccine administrator – to potentially damaging heat exposure. In all, we were able to deliver over 200 million state-of-the-art indicators throughout the summer. ​​​​​​​(And, as I mentioned before, nearly one billion before the end of the year.) 

The Qualities of True Front-Line Heroes 

The on-time delivery of these innovative products was only possible due to the agility, integrity, accountability, and teamwork of the Zebra Supplies team at the Morris Plains plant. The leadership and dedication of this group is second to none. My partner and I were treated like visiting royalty from the minute we walked in until the final minute prior to our return home, and I proudly bore witness to countless acts of fellow Zebras going above and beyond to get this critical job completed correctly and out the door on time. As neophytes, my partner and I likely stretched the bounds of our hosts’ patience, but that was never made evident in either their expressions or their explanations. Even though their first shift ends at 2:30p.m., nearly the full crew stayed hours afterward to keep chipping away at this massive project, relying on each other and putting forth the extra effort for our customers. Personally, I enjoyed every single minute I spent in their facility. 

More than anything, the dogged tenacity and care for one another, regardless of rank, serves as a shining example of how we can pull ourselves out of this pandemic. Through the act of manufacturing a critical component of the vaccine that will medically eliminate the threat of COVID-19 around the globe, I saw in this Zebra Supplies team a determined group of people willing to look out for one another, to grit their teeth and endure for the sake of one another, until the day that threat is completely eliminated. And I was proud to count myself as one of them for two weeks that ended too quickly. 

Zebra employees with Nick Heenan at the Morris Plains facility

When I received word in December that the Morris Plains plant was selected to become Zebra’s new Healthcare Center of Excellence for Supplies, I was ecstatic. So was Brad Mataczynski, Senior Director of Temptime Operations for Zebra’s temperature sensing solutions business. 

Zebra CEO Anders Gustafsson cuts the ribbon at the Morris Plains, NJ, facility as it becomes Zebra`s Center of Excellence for Healthcare Supplies

The Morris Plains site is ISO 9001 and ISO 13485 certified and listed as an FDA medical device manufacturer. With the quality management system, facilities, processes, and procedures necessary to support medical device manufacture, it has become an integral part of the strategy for Zebra’s growth in healthcare. In 2022, the site is expanding, and as Brad recently explained, “Locating the Healthcare Center of Excellence in Morris Plains is very exciting, and an honor, as it better positions Zebra’s Supplies business and the team at this site to support future growth in healthcare.”  

I couldn’t agree more.  

We are fortunate to have this group of people among our global Zebra family. The world is fortunate to have them among our front-line heroes waging an epic struggle against a deadly virus. Most importantly, I am fortunate to count them among my friends.  

Whether they’re producing VVMs for COVID-19 or malaria vaccines or manufacturing electronic data loggers for long-distance distribution of other temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and goods, they always put quality – and the good of society – first. 

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Editor’s Note: 

Stay tuned into the Your Edge Blog in the coming months to learn more about the work being done at the Morris Plains plant to help provide visibility into – and build confidence in – global cold chain goods.  

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Nicholas Heenan
Nicholas (Nick) Heenan is currently the Senior Quality Assurance Assistant at Zebra-Greenville, where he is responsible for documentation control and compliance. Nick has more than five years of experience in the industry and previously, he served as a Quality Technician and Prepress Operator at Zebra. An enthusiastic contributor to the ZoAA Inclusion and Diversity group, Nick also serves on the Board of Directors for the Fox Valley Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where he uses his talents for writing and speaking to eliminate the stigma of mental health struggles.