Keep cool and deliver

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A successful retail cold chain can mean the difference between profit and loss, as well as company integrity. Maria Highland investigates the key aspects that make up successful cold chain operations…

We often underestimate the delicate nature of the retail cold chain, particularly how a vehicle breakdown or breakdown in technology can incur large losses and costs. “Refrigerated trucks and trailers carry some of the most valuable and sensitive loads on the road,” says Carrier Transicold managing director Scott Dargan, “a reefer laden with smoked salmon could easily be worth many thousands of pounds, while the value of a consignment of pharmaceuticals can reach seven figures.” Therefore, keeping produce fresh and undamaged is crucial to avoid any stock or profit loss. “Ensuring precise temperature control throughout cold chain operations is a huge responsibility,” continues Dargan, “food temperatures must be maintained to ensure freshness, of course, but for drugs and vaccines, it’s imperative that they arrive in precisely the same condition as when they left the laboratory.” A successful cold chain operation relies on various aspects of its operation running smoothly, from initial storage to transport and final mile delivery. Not to mention the multitude of obstacles which need to be overcome during the whole process, such as keeping trailers functioning and adhering to the requiring temperatures, keeping to delivery times and accommodating growing demand for fresh food deliveries in cities riddles with emission laws and congestion. But where do you start to look when it comes improving cold chain operations? According to industry professionals, the answer lies with last mile customer delivery which is supported by the correct choice of trailer. BITO Storage Systems managing director Edward Hutchison places emphasis on the ‘last mile’ to the customer. “After goods have been optimally stored and picked, this phase is decisive in ensuring that the cold chain remains unbroken and groceries are delivered fresh to the customer,” he says. Therefore, retailers need to ensure that goods are well protected and stay fresh when out for delivery, with no damage to products or their packaging. Likewise, Schmitz Cargobull technical director Derek Skinner believes that, from the operator’s point of view, the most important aspect of cold chain operations is on-temperature and on-time temperature delivery. This is made possible by the correct choice of trailer that can provide all the information available to make the cold chain distribution as informed and efficient as possible – such as trailer temperature, location, condition and how other main parts of the trailer are performing. Skinner suggests incorporating geo-fencing technology to help control any situational changes. Geo-fencing enables operators to simply reprogram the trailer in accordance to a situation change, without needing to invest in new hardware. “If you’re travelling to your supplier and have got to have the trailer pre-cooled to another temperature,” he says, “you can instruct the telematics system so it changes the set point of the refrigeration to what you need it to be, making the loading process much quicker.” Therefore, investing in the right technology and ensuring that refrigeration systems are being used correctly is crucial when it comes to running a successful cold chain operation. This ensures that operational costs are kept under control as well as preserving company integrity. Loading and operating procedures must also be taken into account. However, every operation comes with its own set of obstacles and successful operations work to overcome them. For many cold chain grocery retail operations, particularly e-commerce retailers, getting products out of the warehouse in line with growing consumer demands can be an obstacle. For a company that sells fresh products alongside frozen foods and drugstore products to a customer base that can shop anytime and anywhere, with the expectations of a home delivery, “reacting to changes can be very difficult in this market, and the process is typically very expensive,” explains Hutchison. In this instance, it can be beneficial to keep things simple and flexible when it comes to picking online grocery orders says Hutchison. Flexible storage systems and straightforward provision of the online grocery retailer’s extensive range can help to better respond to change. Shelving which accommodates a wide product range for manual order picking is another potential solution as random storage means items can be stored in any unoccupied storage position and orders are picked manually. And once products make it out of the centre, they face the next obstacle of transport. When transporting fresh goods “no operator wants to deal with an unexpected breakdown,” says Skinner. This can halter the delivery process and result in spoilt goods. Choosing full-service contract packages may be useful, so “any work can be scheduled according to its condition to give the customer increased reliability,” he suggests. “Other operational concerns can include the temperature at which the load is placed on-board,” adds Skinner. For example, when temperature inside the trailer is higher than it needs to be, having a telematics system in place will allow this to be monitored. “Even sat at your desk, the system will tell you whether one of your vehicles has a load that is over the set point,” says Skinner. “It is the speed of communication that helps the operator to make a decision there and then, rather than getting to the end of the journey and discovering a problem.” Innovative technology can provide constant updates on the condition of goods in transit. For example, temperature and motion sensors on a roll cage or unit load to report via GPS every few minutes would be helpful. “An immediate alert on roll cages being left outside of the cold chain for too long could significantly save food wastage – taking action as soon an issue is spotted can make a big difference,” says Entopy CEO Toby Mills. A lot rides on the refrigerator unit used and how well it works to preserve the products it carries. However, fuel consumption of the trailers used is also a cause for concern. Transicold’s Scott Dargan raises the point that “more than 50 per cent of refrigerant consumption goes toward ‘topping up’ leaking systems,” across the European refrigeration industry. This can be remedied by opting for new technologies and systems which minimise levels of leakage, reduce environmental impact while delivering savings. “Using refrigerants with a lower GWP will also make a significant impact,” adds Dargan, especially as “the challenges surrounding the reduction of inner-city air pollution levels are driving the demand for cleaner burn and more efficient engine technology.” Minimising emissions from cold chain operations during transport stages is becoming increasingly harder as the market demand for online grocery delivery is growing. Resultantly, more fresh produce is making its way across cities rather than single consignments to retail stores as short delivery times and fresh products are becoming the norm in customer expectations. Thus “retailers in the e-food sector must also ask themselves how they can optimise their logistical processes to meet the demand for faster, free delivery of fresh goods,” says Hutchison. He asserts that the answer is to choose the right storage system as this can help to create the right conditions for keeping delivery times as short as possible. “In order for free delivery to be a viable option, online retailers need to implement as many cost-saving measures as possible,” explains Hutchison. Fresh produce represents the high-turnover and, as a result, live storage systems are growing in importance. “Since goods automatically replenish themselves on each shelf [in live storage], this enables constant item availability,” says Hutchison. Such systems also enable goods to be by expiration date so that picker always reaches for the product with the nearest best-before date. Dargan also notes that the industry is seeing an increase in urban distribution, especially across online shopping and home delivery. “In line with this, we are seeing an increased demand for refrigerated transport systems on vehicles best suited for inner-city operations,” continues Dargan. “For home delivery operators, uptime is critical; they need reliable systems that can handle the heavy asset utilisation.” Corresponding this, cities are now working to control emissions by introducing their own controls when it comes to vehicle emissions and restricting deliveries to certain hours of the day. This has impacted city logistics and, in turn, cold chain operations requiring access to cities and homes. Turning to alternative transport or switching to electric can help to keep costs down and increase efficiency. Dargan adds that Transicold is seeing an increased interest in its engineless solution, which does not require a dedicated transport refrigeration engine but driven by converting the trucks mechanical energy into electricity to drive the refrigeration system at a constant speed and can be interfaced with alternative vehicle fuel platforms. Hybrid trailers are also becoming an increasing trend. They “can be used with a completely unmodified and non-designated tractor unit to create a hybrid-powered truck-and-trailer combination,” explains Skinner. He adds that in an urban or night-time operation, hybrid technology “could run on electric and hence at very low noise, producing ultra-low emissions. By setting up geo-fence areas this could be automatically switched with no driver interaction or distraction.” However, “what works for one kind of operation may not be practical or as effective in another so it is about understanding the individual challenges and then providing a non-prescriptive, sustainable solution,” adds Dargan.

This feature first appeared in the September issue of Logistics Manager.


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