| Written by Constance Stickler

Fresh produce like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, seafood, cut flowers, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and electronic goods have one thing in common: They require temperature control and must be monitored during transport.
Reefer container temperature monitoring system

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Shortage and demand for reefer container capacity

Demand for goods that require refrigerated delivery is ever-increasing, and experts anticipate it to more than double in the next ten years. As a result, the market size of the global cold chain was valued at USD 241.97 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow by 15,1% annually until 2030. The reasons for this high estimation are:

  • Further growth in existing markets.
  • The expansion of multinational companies' retail chains.
  • Fast developing demand in emerging markets with increasingly organised retail stores.

Trade liberalisation, rapid urbanisation, technological advancement, increased demand and investment by developing countries fuel this growth.

While tariffs for dry freight tend to fall after unprecedented heights during the pandemic, reefer rates have increased, mainly due to equipment shortages. Reefer containers have become scarce as they have also been used for dry cargo shipping. Consequently, they have been stuck somewhere and now it is difficult returning them to the loading ports due to congestion, lack of schedule reliability and empty departures.

The most obvious solution would be to build new reefer containers. But the procurement of raw materials such as nickel, copper, aluminium, stainless steel, and semiconductors, which are of crucial importance, is unsustainable.

In dire need of reefer capacity, even old reefer vessels are re-activated. These ships have been progressively written off and replaced by container ships in the last thirty years. The pandemic reversed this trend, at least for the moment. 

Traffic jams at transhipment hubs, lack of personnel, and the uncertainty of economic development add further pressure to the stressed global cold chain.

 

Why is reefer container temperature monitoring so important?

There are several factors in preserving the quality of fresh produce, but maintaining the right temperature is the most important. 

Many of these fresh goods may be transported within a defined temperature range of a few degrees. As continuous fluctuations constitute a significant problem in preserving cargo, keeping them at a constant temperature is essential. For some commodities, such as wine, the quality may only deteriorate to a flatter taste because it ages too quickly at too high a temperature. However, for some pharmaceutical products, temperatures outside the range, even for a short period of time, can cause them to lose their chemical stability and physical properties, rendering them unusable or even dangerous.

In addition to goods that have gone bad, some products can no longer be sold due to minor defects; think of cut flowers or fruit that is not in perfect condition, which nobody wants to buy anymore and which are therefore sorted out.

Global food waste is a huge problem. 33% of food is wasted, but estimations suggest it is more likely to be 40%. 931 million tons of food are lost along the supply chain alone. Many countries, organisations, and companies have "declared war" on waste. Everyone in the transport industry is called to support the efforts, be seen as a responsible partner, and remain competitive.

Apart from the environmental impact of unsuccessful deliveries, there are further disadvantages for producers, freight forwarders and retailers: 

The most obvious downside, of course, revolves around money. Whoever is at fault in the supply chain must cover the damage and additionally pay for their workers and equipment. Even if insurance covers the damage, the cost of the premiums can rise sharply.

As demand for temperature-sensitive cargo increases and a shortage of available reefer containers persists, it becomes clear that we shall exploit any potential for improvement. Although there are numerous ongoing technological developments in the shipping of chilled and frozen goods, especially when automating processes, there is still much room for improvement in productivity. These technologies exist but still, need to be used across the board.

 

How can a reefer container temperature monitoring system increase productivity?

Automation is the most critical factor for productivity improvements. In the vast majority of container terminals, for example, automation focuses on handling containers, while monitoring individual containers is still done manually. Imagine what a hassle this means in ports with several hundred or even thousands of reefer slots.

Manual controls create two main problems - first, they tie up a lot of workforce and time, and second, errors occur repeatedly. Consequently, reefer incidents are one of the leading reasons for insurance claims in the shipping industry, most of which are caused by human error.

Preferably, labour-intensive, sometimes dangerous routines are transferred from employees to machines. Employees only are called into action in exceptional cases or emergencies, where their skills are always superior to those of machines. Instead of a large crew walking the reefer yard 24/7, a system of coordinated monitoring devices and an employee who, in turn, monitors them is sufficient.

 

Benefits of a reefer container monitoring system

 

Response to alarm

In the past, alarms have been missed because they were displayed on the reefer display and, therefore, only discovered during an inspection round. Now they light up on the monitor and are sent as a push message. Consequently, the crew can avert damage to the cargo as they react much faster. 

 

Less movement on the terminal

Ports are hazardous places. Even minor incidents can seriously disrupt regular traffic and, eventually, terminal operations. Specific workforce movements within the terminal require pausing other activities. An automated reefer container monitoring system mitigates such disturbances. In addition, employees won't be affected by the existing, often harsh weather conditions. 

 

Team efficiency

Where it used to take several people a long time to check all the reefers in larger ports or ships, today a much smaller crew performs the same task with the help of a digital monitoring solution. In times of skills shortages, it is essential to provide the same level of quality to your reefers to avoid damage. Automation is one strategy to accomplish this. 

 

Plug & play

State-of-the-art automation solutions can be easily integrated into existing terminal operating systems (TOS) and do not require extensive training. In contrast, manual reading requires instruction in the various container types. However, this can become time-consuming when new people must be trained repeatedly if the worker turnover is high.

 

Compliance with regulations

When goods are traded internationally, complete shipping documentation is required. Continuous digital temperature monitoring is much more reliable than readings taken once per shift, which means every 8 hours for non-sensitive cargo. In addition, there is a defined period for some means of transport in which the temperature logs must be available.

 

Insurance claims

If one of your customers complains about spoiled goods, what gives you a better chance of averting the blame when investigating the causes? Selective, manually recorded measurements that may be dangerously close to the permitted limit at one point or another, or a complete history that shows precisely that the temperature zones were never transcended while the goods were in your hands? You can save time, money, and trouble with control and insight 24/7.

 

More information, more insights

The more data you have available that is manageable and easy to access, the clearer become weak points and the potential for improvement and savings. Reefer monitoring data can also be used to identify trends that can be used to improve operations.

 

Customer relations

All information can also be made available to customers at the push of a button. This creates trust and is increasingly becoming the standard service that customers expect. 

 

Takeaway

A reefer container monitoring system can track perishable goods' temperature and humidity during transport and their stay in ports. This information can improve the supply chain by ensuring that goods are transported in optimal conditions and arrive at their destination fresh and unspoiled. A reefer container monitoring system can also help to identify issues with the transportation of perishable goods, such as delays in transit or exposure to extreme temperatures, which can help to improve the overall quality of the supply chain.