Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Quality control headed to new heights.
A temperature monitoring device and the GPS ability in the driver’s smartphone are becoming every bit as essential in moving produce across the country as the truck itself.
“Most of the customers we work with require their shippers to imbed temperature tracking and sometimes location-tracking devices in every load,” says Ben Batten, vice president of sales at Des Moines Transportation Co., Urbandale, IA. “Less and less produce is being moved in trucks that do not have temperature recording devices.”
Technology is taking us to the day that anyone with access to the Cloud will be able to know in real time where a load of produce is in transit, when it should arrive, accounting for the driver’s required down time, and the extent to which it endured inhospitable temperatures on the way.
Many of the larger retailers already require that temperatures be recorded on the road to the distribution center.
“The use of temperature-recording devices is relatively standard in regions like North America,” says Marc Beasley, vice president for strategic marketing and business development, food industry at Sensitech, Beverly, MA. “In other parts of the world, the practice varies, but our devices are used across all commodities, transport modes and lanes. It is common for retailers to require a device on any load that is perishable.”
These relatively inexpensive devices produce evidence that exonerates or assigns blame for shipments that arrive in unsatisfactory condition.
“The absence of a temperature record while in transit minimizes the carrier’s ability to prove they did their due diligence,” says Jimmy DeMatteis, president of Des Moines Truck Brokers, Norwalk, IA. “It takes away their ability to prove that they followed the load protocol. The most obvious answer to why the devices are used is claims exposure.”
This technology provides evidence of liability for produce gone bad, can send alerts in time to prevent spoilage and someday may take inventory management to a new level.
The Cadillac version of tracking technology enables all interested parties to track the temperature and location of a load in real time as it moves from field to distribution center.
“The next big thing is putting temperature monitoring and location monitoring together, in real time,” says Mark Petersen, vice president of transportation for Robinson Fresh, Eden Prairie, MN. “There is this technology available currently, but it can be expensive and not everyone in the industry has access to the same software and way of keeping data, which makes sharing and transferring data in a standardized format difficult.
“Once technology enables real-time temperature monitoring in an affordable, easy-to-use manner, it may change the replenishment process and improve quality standards,” says Petersen.
“Like any new technology, it is very expensive,” says DeMatteis. “Using some of the tracking devices in the market can cost up to $25 per load. Smart refrigeration units are very expensive, and many carriers are utilizing equipment that is carb compliant, dependable and simply do not need to invest in another unit.”
Enthusiasts of the higher-end transportation tracking technology say it quickly pays for itself in claims prevented.
“The next advance would be widespread adoption of active temperature devices that travel back with the load,” says Ken Lund, vice president of operations at Allen Lund Company, La Canada, CA. “We’ve had great success with a device back in the trailer. A much lower percentage of trucks have active devices; it’s probably 10 percent of the loads. It is not much more expensive; it is just $35 a load instead of $15, and I’ve seen it stop a lot of claims.”
For some truckers or brokers who believe real-time temperature monitoring is well worth the cost, the future is already here.
“Those who do not apply temperature-recording devices take the risk that the damage, loss or other negative effects of temperature abuse will not outweigh the cost of monitoring,” says Beasley. “That argument is getting more difficult to make as affordable technology becomes more effective, especially with real-time monitoring devices that detect problems while the produce is still in transit.”
There are also refrigerators designed to transmit the temperature wirelessly without any additional device required.
“I’ve seen some shippers requesting visibility of the same data available to motor carriers about location, refrigerator setting, and run temperatures from ‘smart reefers,’ ” says Des Moines Transportation’s Batten.
The advantage of real-time temperature monitoring is it lets you respond to potential problems early, rather than wait to assess blame after it is too late.
“Without real-time monitoring, it is more difficult to predict or react to those immediate, unforeseeable events that can disrupt a supply chain,” says Sensitech’s Beasley. “On a day-to-day basis, it can be challenging to get third parties to respond quickly when a status inquiry is made regarding a load. However, when you have your own independent real-time data source, you can make your own determination.”
The system can be set up such that interested parties receive a text when the temperature stays too high for too long.
“For me, the advantage for this is potentially a ‘real-time alert’ that the freight temperature has deviated from the correct temperature,” says DeMatteis of Des Moines Truck Brokers. “The sooner parties are alerted, the quicker the fix.”
The temperature and location devices usually transmit information to the Cloud, where shippers or receivers can access it without having to communicate directly with the instruments in the moving truck.
“Since real-time instruments transmit temperature data to the Cloud automatically, there is no need for a receiver to physically retrieve and download a device from deep within a truckload shipment — and to download its data into a computer,” says Roger Niebolt, sales manager at Cargo Data, Ventura, CA. “Real-time instruments serve to assure the temp data is permanently archived without any input from the driver or receiver.”
Some transportation brokers find the savings in liability disputes make real-time temperature and location technology well worth the cost.
“I use real-time temperature monitoring because it is a risk-management tool,” says Paul Kazan, president of Target Interstate Systems at Hunts Point Terminal Market in Bronx, NY. “I can act instead of react. I set parameters; if a load should be at 34 degrees, and it reaches above 37 degrees for two hours or more, I get an alert that we send to the driver right away.”
Kazan sees value in going the extra mile with devices that let you know when the truck door is open, and for how long.
“We use a device that also picks up light,” says Kazan. “If a truck door is opened, I can see that.”
Following the location of loads in transit is easier and more economical than monitoring the temperature because all the driver has to do is enable the tracking feature that every cellphone must have by law for the purposes of 911 emergency calls.
“Every phone can be located in relation to nearby towers,” says Kazan. “This information can be made available to the public if the owner authorizes it. We send a text asking the driver to allow us to track them.”
This simple cellphone feature is particularly useful because owner-operators or small fleet companies predominate in the trucking industry. Easily accessible information allows shippers, truck brokers and other interested parties to follow the load from the field to the distribution center.
“The drivers have an event button on an app to let us know when they arrive at the pickup location, when they are leaving and when they break down,” says Kazan. “We can see the driver on a Google map that includes weather, so we know what he’s going to run into.”
Truckers are now required to have electronic logging devices (ELD) under federal regulation intended to prevent drivers from going too long on the road without adequate rest or sleep.
Access to the ELD information will allow truck brokers to improve logistics by more efficiently locating trucks with drivers who still have enough time allowed to make a particular run, and also to predict when a load will arrive based on both the miles left and the driving hours allowed before the next break.
The Passive Solution
Because of cost and inertia, only a small share of produce is tracked in transit with real-time temperature monitors, but a large majority has devices that record the information and let you access it after the cargo reaches its destination.
“No matter the type of recording device, they are generally put on the container by the shipper at the request of the buyer,” says Petersen from Robinson Fresh. “Based on my experience, I think, roughly 80 percent of produce that moves on trucks, moves with temperature-recording devices.”
Even this “passive” information makes it possible to sort out blame in cases where the fruits and vegetables went bad.
“By having a temperature-monitoring device, carriers are able to demonstrate that they maintained the customer-requested trailer temperature while in transit,” says Petersen.
Although more sophisticated systems are gaining in popularity, the current industry standard is still real-time location tracking combined with temperature data loggers that can be read after the load is delivered.
“While real-time technology gets lots of attention, the vast majority of produce going down the road is being monitored by conventional ‘data logger’-type instruments,” says Cargo Data’s Niebolt. “Real-time temperature monitoring instruments have become increasingly popular in the past two or three years.”
Temperature information can help, over time, identify and fix problems managing the cold chain during transportation.
“By using the data to uncover and fix the root cause of temperature issues, our customers have achieved sustained process improvements that reduce the likelihood of temperature excursions, even in the heat of the summer,” says Sensitech’s Beasley.
A revolution in inventory management could be on the horizon, because a record of the temperature in transit gives produce retailers important information about remaining shelf life.
“The consequence of not using temp monitoring is poor ability to predict shelf life and subsequently high levels of product shrink, and customer dissatisfaction,” says Niebolt.
Software companies already have developed products that let the user see the tracking information for a load on a netbook or laptop, in a form that can be integrated into inventory management or other systems.
“The active devices from Sensitech and the Locus Traxx from Emerson (St. Louis) are both integrated into our management system,” says Lund. “Our system makes it easy to see the data on a laptop or iPad.”
You can even monitor in advance, with real-time systems, when a load of produce will arrive and how much shelf life it will have left.
“Some in the produce industry are slowly working toward using in-transit temperature data as a tool to predict shelf life for very sensitive products, but not with much consistent success,” says Niebolt. “Real-time instruments enable shippers and receivers to easily monitor temperature and location of vital shipments prior to arrival at destination,” says Niebolt. “This tracing ability is helpful, because shippers and receivers have historically been frustrated with ‘not quite accurate’ information provided by carriers/brokers in the event of late arrivals.”
This technology has the potential, as yet largely unrealized, to bring a new level of precision to perishable produce inventory management based on remaining shelf life, rather than first-in, first-out.
“Temperature and other sensor data captured in transit is more powerful in the context of a quality management system,” says Beasley. “There are a myriad of attributes that define quality: taste, size, ripeness, appearance, shelf life, ingredients, etc. Sensitech’s Greenlight Quality Control and Supplier Approval software solutions allow shippers and receivers to digitize product specifications, in as much detail as needed, and then perform quality control checks on a tablet or smartphone.”
When the Rules Don’t Apply
As much as location and temperature data have become the norm, there are still produce transportation situations where they are not used because they may not be needed.
“If temperature recorders aren’t used, it is generally because a shipper thinks the in-transit time is too short for temp variations to matter much, or, if the product is going on an in-house truck, they see no need because the product is being transferred inter-company,” says Niebolt. “For shipments from major shippers to major receivers – for example, from Driscoll’s Berry in Watsonville, CA, to the Publix Supermarkets distribution center in Atlanta – I would estimate 95 percent of the shipments have some sort of temperature-monitoring device in operation while the shipment is in transit. However, when those same berries move from the Publix distribution center to Publix stores on Publix-owned trucks, very, very few trailers are monitored.”
Some produce is less perishable and may not require the same monitoring in transit.
“The only reason I do not think this is at 100 percent is because not all commodities need that level of temperature monitoring,” says Petersen from Robinson Fresh. “For example, many commodities are not refrigerated by consumers. Therefore, these same commodities may not require that level of temperature monitoring while in transit.”
There is no reason to monitor the temperature of these items that are not even refrigerated in transit.
“Watermelon and onion shipments on a non-refrigerated trailer would not warrant a device,” says Des Moines Truck Brokers’ DeMatteis. “Other than that, I can only say that they would be looking for shortcuts. This is the very sort of thing FSMA was intended to prevent.”
There are also some holdouts in the trucking business who openly wonder if the technology peddlers and their associates are angling for a piece of the transportation action they don’t really deserve.
“I think that tech companies, legal bars and the government are selling the notion of freight visibility based on fear,” says DeMatteis. “As a whole, the industry has done remarkably well providing the best food supply in the world to millions of Americans with very few problems. We go to great lengths to communicate between our carriers and customers almost to the side of over-communication. The sad aspect of this is we have already seen shippers and receivers buy into this notion to the point of contractual requirement of specific brand named mobile tracking devices. This is ludicrous as they are virtually eliminating a majority of transportation providers from participating in their freight.”
Some trucking industry veterans do not see the need to redesign their systems to incorporate high technology tracking tools.
“In 31-plus years, we have not used temperature-tracking technology with no consequences,” says Fred Plotsky, president at Cool Runnings, Kenosha, WI. “Some people are not using it because they do not think it is necessary.”
Even those who buy into the latest tracking technology might do well to remember that the backbone of produce transportation is the large number of generally small operators who are asked to perform miracles on tight schedules.
“Be more efficient at loading and unloading at the docks,” advises Ken Lund of the Allen Lund Company. “You’ve got to understand the pressure the truckers are under.”