Staying cool under pressure
With the cold chain market set to explode, temperature-controlled fleets are looking to sophisticated new technologies that provide precision monitoring of perishable cargo.
By Ben Ames
Supply chain visibility is a crucial capability in the trucking sector, allowing fleet managers to track the precise location and condition of every vehicle as they hustle to meet strict delivery schedules while complying with a host of regulatory requirements, including driver hours-of-service caps. Nowhere is that more true than in the cold chain, where fleet managers must meet all those demands plus one more thing—keep their freight within precise temperature ranges at every step of the journey.
Meeting this challenge requires far more than simply bolting an air conditioner onto a refrigerated "reefer" truck and uploading a tracking app to the driver's smartphone. So in search of better ways to monitor freight temperatures in transit and provide real-time data to shippers, the industry is turning to new technologies such as sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), fifth-generation (5G) wireless networking, and blockchain data sharing, experts say.
Cold chain fleet managers say those platforms could change the way temperature-controlled trucking is performed within the next five years. By providing improved environmental monitoring, track-and-trace capabilities, and supply chain visibility, these technologies could also help fleets keep up with exploding demand for temperature-controlled transport. The global cold chain market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.6% from 2018 to 2023, to reach a value of $293 billion by the end of that period, according to the Northbrook, Illinois-based research firm Markets and Markets Inc. The growth will be driven by the expansion of international trade in perishable foods, technological advancements in refrigerated storage and transport, government support for infrastructure development, and increased consumer demand for perishable foods in both grocery stores and online channels, the research firm says.
Investment and consolidation in the industry is also accelerating, as shown by recent moves like Lineage Logistics' acquisition of Preferred Freezer Services and Emergent Cold, Americold Realty Trust's acquisition of Cloverleaf Cold Storage, Ahold Delhaize USA's announcement of plans to spend $480 million to transform its U.S. supply chain operations over the next three years, and Crowley Logistics' addition of 300 refrigerated cargo containers to its fleet.
SOME COOL CHALLENGES
As volume ramps up, cold chain practitioners are seeking tools that provide more detailed visibility into what's happening in their supply chain, according to Greg Bryan, executive vice president of Lineage Logistics, a Novi, Michigan-based refrigerated warehousing and logistics company that operates more than 200 warehouses across the U.S. and manages more than $250 million of freight globally in its network.
In comparison with nonrefrigerated—or ambient—trucking fleets, temperature-controlled transportation offers added challenges, Bryan says. For example, operators are sometimes required to pre-cool a trailer before loading the goods inside.
"The temperature-controlled side of the business is more challenging, especially if you're making multiple stops, going from location A to B to C," Bryan says. "Let's say you stop at point B and open the trailer. Then warm air hits the load, so you need to make sure [the loading crew is] ready to move the product, because all you're doing is moving hot air into the trailer."
Adding more financial pressure, many businesses have instituted significant fines for cold chain products that are not delivered on time, charging as much as 3% to 4% of the invoice price. That penalty could be significant when you consider that high-value products like fish and seafood frequently generate load values of well over $100,000 per truck, Bryan says.
CURRENT TECHNOLOGY FALLS SHORT
Despite the need for precision, obtaining the required visibility can be a challenge for the fleets that typically serve the cold chain sector. The average-sized fleet in the temperature-controlled business consists of about 20 trucks, whereas fleets on the "dry" side can boast up to 200 trucks, Bryan says. In those smaller fleets, a driver's data visibility is often delivered through nothing more than a cellphone, as opposed to the sophisticated telematics systems used by larger fleets with greater resources.
Third-party logistics service providers (3PLs) that contract with those smaller fleets may have no choice but to rely on a driver to enter temperatures into a smartphone app at each stop, a dicey approach if drivers are traveling in areas with spotty cellphone coverage. As an alternative, shippers and retailers are increasingly doing the job themselves by attaching a physical temperature sensor to their pallets, he says. That device allows shippers to monitor the load's conditions throughout its journey, although it may not interact directly with a carrier's platform.
To close those gaps in data monitoring and information sharing, Lineage plans to launch an online portal this year that will give its customers greater visibility into shipments in transit. Still in development, the system would monitor temperature conditions and automatically send an alert if a load grows too warm, Bryan says.
Another new approach to boosting cold chain visibility entails improving the platforms that run on the handhelds or smartphones that often serve as a driver's only link to his fleet, according to Will Salter, president and CEO of Paragon Software Systems Plc, a U.K.-based routing and scheduling software vendor. Paragon now offers a workflow management product that runs on drivers' Android-based handhelds and allows them to receive instructions on deliveries, such as changes to times or locations. As each driver checks the temperatures on the truck—a single vehicle may have multiple sections spanning chilled, ambient, and frozen—he or she can record the data; the system will then automatically generate reports on when the driver reached delivery locations and dropped off loads.
IoT AND BLOCKCHAIN ENTER THE PICTURE
Whether they deploy temperature sensors or phone apps, companies can choose from an array of products designed to help keep tabs on temperature-sensitive cargo. A number of players in the market already provide cold chain monitoring equipment to measure temperature in transit or in storage, then communicate that information to trading partners.
But most of those systems fail to track shipments through the complete supply chain, including manufacturing, inventory storage, and distribution, according to Jai Suri, senior director, product management, IoT Cloud for the Redwood Shores, California-based enterprise software vendor Oracle Corp. Instead, they collect tracking information from separate sources, he explains. However, because the data from those disparate sources isn't connected, analyzing the root cause of "excursions"—or departures from set temperature limits—can take days or weeks, and the cost can run into the thousands of dollars, he says.
To address that challenge, Oracle's fleet management solution—which is part of the Oracle Transportation Management suite—creates a unified database from information gathered from a range of sources, such as sensor data from a moving vehicle, links to a vehicle's onboard computer known as its controller area network (CAN), sensors on the trailer, and tracking devices on pallets. The company then processes the data using a cloud-based Internet of Things (IoT) approach and applies "automatic anomaly detection models" to notify a transportation service provider that its shipment is at risk, Suri says.
Oracle has also developed an intelligent track-and-trace platform that uses blockchain technology to create a secure online "ledger" where trading partners can view each other's information, and is currently developing a specialized version of the product for cold chain users. That track-and-trace platform takes a broad-based view of the transportation process, covering activities beyond just the transportation leg that begins once the product has been loaded onto a truck.
"A lot happens before and after that too, and that's where we see a lot of excursions—during storage and dwell time, or in the staging area of the warehouse," Suri says. "You need to know how long [a load] has been left at each stage and was it temperature controlled, because a supply chain involves many different trading partners and the chain of custody can involve many sets of hands."
Combining an IoT approach with blockchain-based data sharing will allow platforms to collect data directly from sensors, eliminating the need for data entry by fallible humans. Fueled by that accurate information, users will be able to trace incidents back to the exact batch and avoid expensive recalls, he says.
That approach is rapidly become more affordable, thanks to technology such as lightning-fast 5G wireless networks that enable faster IoT systems and "edge analytics" hardware that processes data on the truck where it was gathered, instead of transmitting it to the cloud first.
Powered by those advances, cold chain transportation fleet management is on the verge of a leap forward in capabilities, experts agree. In the coming years, trucks delivering refrigerated cargo will be able to automatically communicate vital details to dispatchers and customers alike, allowing trading partners to prevent spoilage, preserve valuable goods, and avoid expensive recalls.
About the Author
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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