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Maintaining the Cold Chain: Links in Review
by Neil Canavan
For the most wide-ranging advice on cold chain management, a membership in the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA), based in Alexandria, Va., might be a good first move. “It’s critical that all parties work together to insure the maintenance of proper temperatures from the point of production to the point of the consumer,” says GCCA president, Corey Rosenbusch. “It’s our mission to promote that cause.”
With an eight-year tenure at GCCA, and a membership encompassing stakeholders from 67 countries, Rosenbusch is conversant in the scope of the mission, the challenges, and the innovations to that end.
One growing concern is the needs of infrastructure—domestic and international.
Internationally, the concern involves the growth of the middle class in countries like China and India, and the inherent increase in demand for higher quality food products. “You’ve got apples that come (refrigerated) all the way from Washington state that come off a container ship and then sit in the sun because they don’t have the temperature control infrastructure in place.” The challenge is trying to coordinate successful export to markets where they are not quite ready to receive and distribute the product.
Domestically, there is burgeoning interest in automation due to increasing labor costs and expanded environmental regulations. “We’re watching this very closely with the increased pressure, particularly here in the U.S.,” says Rosenbusch. Though as yet, he observes that, unlike the European Union, the U.S. is lagging behind in the adoption of automation for cold chain management.
At the same time, Americans love their gadgets. The most important technological changes Rosenbusch has witnessed involve product tracking and warehouse management systems. “There’s no paper anymore,” he says. “It’s all radio frequency tags [RFID].” This enables a customer to have real-time electronic data interchange regarding location and relative condition of product.
Not all the GCCA has to offer is broad in scope. For example, Rosenbusch just recently talked one of his members off a ledge after an ammonia leak (ammonia is a commonly used refrigerant). “Leaks only happen on rare occasions, but it’s a real crisis.” And GCCA has a step-by-step plan in place to deal with such a crisis—removal of ammonia, evaluation of potentially exposed product, etc.
Having the experience of building automated infrastructure, Gavin Sargeant, vice-president automation, Conestoga Cold Storage, Ontario, Calif., can comment on the slow uptake in the U.S. “Automation is the predominant method of cold storage in the E.U., but it’s hard to get off the ground in the U.S. due to the capital expenditures,” says Sargeant.
And it can be risky. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, even if an otherwise successful company invests in it and makes a mistake, it can be catastrophic.”
Beyond capital outlay, the risk is in the initial design. For instance, if an automated cold storage facility doesn’t account for product throughput you had in mind, you can’t add more people and equipment to scale up. “You don’t have that ability in an automated facility that’s incorrectly designed—if the fundamental design of the system is incorrect, you’re done.”
Thus, third-party automated storage. “We determine our clients throughput needs, we design and manufacture the automated equipment, we build the buildings…they don’t have the risk.” And running the show is Conestoga software. “We hold our software very close to our hearts because that’s key to the success of the tracking, throughput, and reliability of the system,” says Sargeant.
Perhaps there’s been no bigger and ongoing impact on the industry than radio frequency identification (RFID). According to the just published report, “Strategic Analysis of Global RFID in Cold Chain Market,” (Frost and Sullivan, Mountain View, Calif.) the estimated revenue from RFIDs in the cold chain market was $361.6 million in 2012, and this use is projected to expand by 27.5 percent through 2017.
What’s driving the increase (besides simple utility)? Responding to the question via email, Nandini Bhattacharya, Frost and Sullivan analyst stated, “The FDA mandates that value chain participants track and keep a record of the product temperature history…and they have the authority to penalize those who do not comply. This is pushing all the value chain participants to adopt and implement RFID.”
This trend is not lost on Ray Caron, vice president of marketing and business development at DeltaTRAK, Pleasanton, Calif., a purveyor of RFID technology. For several years the company has been promoting the ColdTRAK system, a cloud-based application, available by subscription, for retrieving, analyzing, and sharing temperature data. The application enables viewing of trip data within minutes of the product reaching its destination.
More recently, DeltaTRAK has launched the ThermoTrace, TTI (Time and Temperature Indicator). “This combines two well understood technologies,” explains Caron, those being the ubiquitous barcode, and, a bit less common, a chemical label that is physically altered by an environmental change. In this case, the chemical expands and migrates, altering the barcode. The combination of technologies results in a single-use TTI label that changes the barcode when exposed to temperatures exceeding a given threshold.
“The data can be retrieved by any barcode reader, or now, even smartphones,” Caron says, and it can be integrated into any existing cold chain program.
In keeping with the adage, “necessity is the mother of invention,” refrigerated transport (reefer) units for trucks have been recently improved. The necessity in this circumstance is being supplied by the impending deadline for compliance with the EPA’s Tier IV emission standards for diesel engines; in response, the invention is a suite of technology improvements called, EcoFORWARD, launched last year by Carrier Transicold, Matawan, N.J., a provider in refrigerated transport systems.
“What started out as a compliance project turned into an opportunity for fleets and customers,” says Transicold’s director of marketing, David Kiefer. As Kiefer explains, rather than just tweak existing systems, why not look at compliance as a byproduct of improved performance. “We figured as long as we have to redesign the equipment, lets do it top to bottom.”
The results of the extra time and effort are high-efficiency refrigeration components with smarter (2.2-liter diesel) engines, operating under the watchful eye of, and controlled by a distributed electronics “APX” system. “The computer is talking to the engine and all the other high-efficiency components to make sure it all runs optimally,” Kiefer says. The APX even has a USB dock to facilitate data downloads.
EcoFORWARD technology has enabled the reduction of a unit’s need of engine power by up to 20 percent, while improving cooling capacity by as much as 10 percent. Further, the units are lighter and use 24 percent less refrigerant. “Altogether, not only are you compliant with better capacity, but units consume less fuel, and that’s better for the environment.”
To keep track of the environment your products been living in, consider investing in a few data loggers. These small devices, like the ones from ebro, a division of Xylem Analytics, Beverly, Mass., operate wirelessly, will automatically notify the user in case of a temperature excursion, and, once uploaded, the data can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection.
“It’s a very simple system,” says Robert Teich, managing director at ebro, “You don’t need extra software, it’s easy to configure…” Teich acknowledges that the unit may not be for everybody—some companies lack the necessary IT infrastructure, or, alternately, it may be the case that third-party logistics are too diverse, harder to organize; in these circumstances the standalone version of the data logger is advised.
Either way, the technology is on the order of standard practice in Europe, says Teich (based in Ingolstadt, Germany). “It’s funny, the FDA came up with this great concept of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) but had few ideas about implementing or enforcing it.” Taking the regulatory lead, such policies abroad mean it’s common in Germany and other countries to have data loggers within a walk-in refrigerator in stores and restaurants.
It’s been Teich’s observation that temperature recording in non-transport situations is often done with a handheld thermometer, with results recorded by hand. Perhaps the recently passed Food Safety Act is applying the needed pressure for change, as Teich notes an uptick in his sales. “We see more interest now in smaller stores and restaurants in the U.S. for data loggers,” he says. “You always have that complete digital record, so anytime a food inspector comes you have an automated report that you can quickly produce.”
All the technology in the world won’t help you if someone left the door open, thus, the vertical storing dock leveler, such as those made by Dock Products Canada, Inc., Ontario. Steve Kalbfleisch, director of Canadian sales, explains, “Instead of storing a leveler in a position parallel to the floor, this one stands straight up behind the overhead motor.” Among other things, this provides for a better seal than conventional levelers. “This preserves cooling and conserves energy because the overhead door comes down to the bottom of the pit as opposed to say the top of the leveler where you have all kinds of gaps.”
Recently added to the standard vertical dock offering is the new Serco Thermal Guard Package that allows for truck doors to be opened from inside the building after the truck is positioned at the door, thereby retaining the thermal seal at the dock.
“People are becoming far more conscious of energy consumption,” says Kalbfleisch, “so with that in mind, we’re recommending the appropriate equipment for our customers to help them reach that goal.”
Canavan is a science/medical writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Reach him at email@example.com.