New Solutions

There are new innovations in sustainable refrigerated road transport.

 By Ronald Thorburn

The refrigerated road transport industry has come a long way since Frederick McKinley Jones, a self-taught engineer, invented the first portable air cooling unit for trucks to carry perishable foods back in 1935. It is now estimated that in a decade there will be more than 15 million refrigerated trucks on the road.

Growing global demand for perishable goods, increased safety regulations and initiatives to reduce environmental impacts has amplified the need to seek new solutions to better manage the complexities of this industry. Companies are leveraging advanced IoT solutions, optimization and cutting-edge cooling systems to stay competitive and become more sustainable.

Maintaining Temperature Integrity

The FDA’s Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), signed in 2011, is the most comprehensive reform of U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years. Key provisions that apply to food transportation are contained in the Sanitary Transport Rule, which became effective as of April 2016 and compliance enforcement began in April 2017.

Maintaining temperature integrity is an important component of the rule. Shippers are responsible for establishing written temperature profiles with tolerances for the carriers, loaders and receivers to ensure the product integrity throughout the process. This includes pre-cooling requirements, the collection and recording of data during the transport, and unloading operations. The shipper also will establish rules for what happens if the temperature falls outside the permissible tolerances.

Carriers are responsible for providing documentation that the temperature was adequately maintained, per the shipper’s specifications, throughout the trip. To do so, companies are leveraging advances made in IoT solutions to not only monitor temperature and humidity, but also location, shock and vibration in real-time. In addition to automating the necessary documentation requirements, the data can be used as an input for an advanced planning solution. This can provide full operational visibility of assets, decision support for better managing alerts and disruptions, as well as the opportunity for optimization.

Advances are moving quickly in this space. According to a recent article in TechCrunch, scientists have developed an ultra-thin sensor that is less than one-fifth the width of a human hair and is edible. The idea is that the sensor will transmit the actual temperature of the food, rather than the ambient temperature around it. The power and wireless components can’t be consumed, so there is still further development needed, but it is exciting.

Capacity Utilization and Routing Optimization 

There are many planning challenges that are rather unique for transporting dry, refrigerated and frozen products in a multi-temperature environment. One might consider that there are two planning puzzles. There is the loading puzzle where the goal is to maximize the capacity of each of the compartments in the truck (or van). If the bulkheads are movable, this provides more options, but an additional layer of planning complexity. Is the space divided lengthwise or widthwise? Is it rear loading or side loading?

Then there is the routing puzzle for planning the deliveries efficiently. Is there one stop or multiple stops? What are the delivery hours? Does one location take longer than another location to unload? Does the location accept a longer truck or is a van necessary? Are drivers available?  These are just some of the considerations.

To fully optimize the planning, both of these puzzles should be managed as one larger planning puzzle where all the rules and constraints are taken into consideration, together. The technology solution should be able to recommend the optimal configuration of the space, where there is flexibility in the equipment. As the load is being planned, it should consider the routing sequence so that it places the product in the right location in the space, depending on its unloading sequence, with the complimentary goal of reducing the transport miles and the accompanying carbon footprint.

To maintain product temperature integrity and efficiency, one wouldn’t want to have to unload products from the second planned stop to get to the products for the first stop. Driver hours and rules also can be layered into the same planning puzzle as well for comprehensive decision support. Further optimization capabilities also can identify back-haul opportunities.

Cryogenic Temperature Control Systems

Diesel fuel powered trucks and refrigerated units are what the industry relies on. These trucks typically use 25 percent more fuel than regular transport trucks. The refrigeration units generate 29 times more pollution than the truck engine itself. In addition, due to how noisy they can be, it can limit the delivery hours in some areas.

As companies seek sustainable ways to reduce their carbon footprint and impact on the environment, many are switching to more fuel efficient and quieter compressors. However, some are turning to the promise of liquid nitrogen. One method is an indirect system where liquid nitrogen, stored in a tank below the unit, flows through a heat exchanger and evaporates, and fans circulate the cold air throughout the compartment.

A second method is a direct system where the liquid nitrogen is released directly into the compartment. Nitrogen itself is harmless. However, in a direct system, the oxygen is depleted so there are safety mechanisms built in that delay access to the compartment for one to two minutes while the oxygen is restored.

Advocates for using liquid nitrogen for cooling extol the benefits of this technology as it can cost less to run, generates zero greenhouse gas emissions and toxic pollution, and it doesn’t rely on refrigerant chemicals. Additionally, it is also far quieter. Advancements such as this provide new opportunities to achieve sustainability objectives.

Today, the market is changing so rapidly that companies need to go beyond traditional continuous improvement and look for transformational ways to deliver better service to their customers, manage disruptions to their supply chain, increase profitability and, for refrigerated food transport, ensure food safety. To remain competitive, organizations must explore new disruptive technologies and take intelligent risks. Those that do will be at the forefront of the industry as it evolves.

Ronald Thorburn is a global marketing manager for Quintiq, a Dassault Systèmes brand and a global leader in supply chain planning and optimization.