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Published: October 2017      

Data-driven reefer management ready to roll in the cold chain

Remote reefer monitoring is slowly but surely coming to the container shipping sector, but the technology is in its relative infancy, and it can take time to implement.

In a recent press release, Orbcomm’s Michael Dempsey noted that, despite Maersk installing remote monitoring modems on nearly 290,000 reefer containers, other top 10 carriers have not rushed to follow suit. Maersk’s system has been around for some time now, but, “with only 13% of the 2.7M TEU global reefer container fleet equipped with IoT technology, there is still time for fleet operators to be an early adopter in the digital supply chain revolution”, he said.

That window might be small. At this month’s TOC Americas conference in Lima, Peru, Maximiliano Alcorta, regional operations manager at MSC, said it plans to roll out the Traxens system across both its dry and reefer container fleet, and expects to begin a pilot project shortly. CMA CGM has previously said it intends to deploy Traxens, and that customers should see something before the end of the year.

It takes time

Implementing a remote asset management platform on a fleet of shipping containers deployed globally is not as easy as it sounds. Maersk completed installing its system on its fleet of some 270,000+ reefer containers around two years ago. The carrier manages its RCM (Remote Container Management) programme system at its global services centres, which are located in India and the Philippines.

Maersk Line advertised for an RCM reefer operations manager in 2014, and has been using it internally and in pilot projects with some customers since 2015. As has been noted in WorldCargo News previously, Maersk has stressed that it wanted to “mature” its internal process, and accumulate operational experience in handling data before it offered RCM to its customers. It has also debated whether, and to what extent, it could charge for RCM as a valueadded service.

There is now some further clarity about how Maersk will use RCM. In an interview with WorldCargo News at TOC Americas, Francisco Ulloa, managing director WCSA for Maersk Line, said it is now offering location and temperature data to all shippers free of charge. The full data log of the reefer container is available on a fee basis.

Ulloa was very positive about how shippers have responded to RCM. A lot of concerns were expressed about how data on reefer temperature might affect liability in the event of a claim, but the executive said Maersk, and the whole market, really has to approach data on another level, if the industry is to digitalise. Maersk wants to see data used collaboratively to address problems and improve service. He gave the example of Maersk and the shipper working together to make alternative plans, where reefer problems are identified, which could include unloading the cargo, or diverting it to another market.

Concerns have also been expressed about how closely shippers would monitor the data, and whether, for example, they would inundate a carrier with calls at every/any change in temperature. Ulloa said that, in the WCSA market, Maersk Line did see an increase in calls from shippers concerned because they could see a reefer container had been disconnected from power in Panama. Maersk had to explain that a period without power is part of the transhipment process. However, he views this as providing transparency, and educating the customer.

AEL ready to monitor

Another carrier now rolling out a reefer monitoring system is Africa Express Line (AEL). A year ago, WorldCargo News reported on AEL’s decision to implement Emerson’s REFCON system across its fleet of 3,000 reefer containers, and to use Emerson’s ProAct software to manage the reefer monitoring process. AEL installed RMM+ modems equipped with power-line and GPRS/ UMTS/GPS communications on the containers.

More recently, AEL purchased 500 new Star Cool integrated reefer containers from Maersk Container Industry (MCI), with the Star Cool Controlled Atmosphere (CA) system. These will be fitted with RMM+ modems, and deployed on the new 2,345 TEU MIMMI SCHULTE, which AEL is chartering.

For the last 12 months, AEL has been working with Emerson to complete the hardware installation, and develop a reefer monitoring system that is integrated into AEL’s operations and business processes. This, said AEL’s technical director, Mathew Shed, is no simple undertaking – integrating vessel and land operations into a common company platform, and then integrating this with Emerson’s ProAct platform.

On the hardware side, AEL and Emerson have collaborated closely on issues relating to power and battery management, and connectivity with the RMM+ modems. These are powered from the reefer machinery when the container is plugged in, but AEL also wants data when the containers are not connected, or not carrying reefer cargo. Brian Robertson, VP business development, Transportation Solutions at Emerson, said AEL had some unique needs, requiring Emerson to build in flexibility into reporting periods, and make changes to how the power budget is managed, to achieve the autonomy AEL needed for extended inland journeys.

Connectivity in West Africa presented a different challenge. In certain areas of the globe where connectivity is difficult, added Robertson, it is a matter of determining the best and most cost-effective method to “back fill” data when a connection is available – a process that has to be fairly dynamic as cellular and satellite networks evolve.

Start monitoring

The volume of data produced by REFCON and RMM+ into the ProAct system is considerable. The RMM+ modems report location, temperature, oxygen, CO2, humidity levels and other data, at regular intervals. The big challenge in implementing reefer monitoring is filtering and integrating the data with new business processes in a way that delivers real benefits to the shipping line.

At its core, the goal of reefer monitoring is to replace manual inspections and data gathering processes with automation that can identify exceptions remotely. Using the ProAct software, a shipping line can identify which are the really important pieces of data, and then build a system for generating notifications and watch lists to scale and manage the monitoring process.

Typically, said Robertson, a line does not want regular notifications that everything is running smoothly – it is only interested in exceptions. With ProAct, the user can define and configure exception parameters as required. This could mean a geofence alert where the location of a container is of interest (in particular when the container is empty), or monitoring specific atmospheric conditions.

As they start to define and configure ProAct, added Robertson, lines get more specific about the parameters they are interested in, when they would like these monitored, and how they would like alerts delivered. A temperature excursion on frozen cargo, for example, might not be of general concern, but if the container is in a defrost cycle in a particular location, the variation over time could be more important.

Implementing REFCON and ProAct, he added, is a process of building layers of logic in the software that define and identify exceptions, and then creating watch lists and alerts that bring the exceptions to the attention of the correct people, to support the way the line intends to manage its reefer containers.

For AEL’s particular business, Mathew Shed said it wants to use the RMM+, REFCON and ProAct products to remotely control and manage reefer containers very precisely. AEL is part of the Compagnie Fruitiere Group, a vertically integrated company that produces, transports and distributes its own fresh fruit and vegetables from West Africa to Europe, and very tightly manages both the cargo and its reefer containers.

The company mainly charters reefer vessels, where refrigeration management is centralised on the ship, and is a lot simpler. Managing 500 CA reefers on one container vessel, Shed emphasised, is a considerable challenge, and AEL does not want vessel personnel to have to monitor and respond to every alert by physically attending the containers during daily monitoring rounds.

AEL has set up a small service centre in Douala, Cameroon, to monitor the alerts and alarms transmitted from reefer containers fitted with RMM+. This is staffed with personnel with experience in supporting reefers and noncontainerised reefer cargo on vessels. They can analyse the alerts, and communicate with vessel-based personnel to resolve issues and give technical support quickly, and thus reduce potential cargo claims.

On the container ship MIMMI SCHULTE, the physical daily monitoring work has been moved to the ship’s office. The crew and “supercargoes” personnel are able to manage up to 500 CA reefers to the cargo owners’ carriage requirements remotely using REFCON, and focus on malfunctioning reefers only. AEL is also working on the benefits from being able to perform pre-trip inspections (PTIs) remotely, and know the location and status of its containers, whether they are carrying cargo or not.

AEL has adjusted its own organisation to work with reefer monitoring, and is confident remote monitoring will deliver measurable benefits in improved asset management, as well as lower operating costs.

Monitoring as a service

While AEL is monitoring its own reefer containers, another carrier that has traditionally used reefer ships has taken a stake in a new company, set up to provide reefer monitoring as a service.

Seatrade, another well-known player in refrigerated transport using reefer vessels, is also expanding into containerization. It has acquired around 6,400 new reefer containers, of which 2,400 were fitted with Carrier Transicold PrimeLINE mach inery, while 4,000 were Star Cool integrated reefers from MCI. All of the containers were fitted with Emerson’s RMM power-line remote monitoring modems.

The remote monitoring process will be managed by C sence, a new company set up by Smith Europe, in which Seatrade has a stake. C sence’s Rick van der Vliet said Smith Europe is the largest reefer servicing company in Europe, and is preparing for digitalisation of the industry. He expects this will bring significant change, in particular in the number of PTIs that are performed, as lines will be able to use data to identify remotely only the boxes that need a physical inspection.

Doing it for you

Rick van der Vliet notes that big shipping lines like Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM have the size and depth to establish their own reefer monitoring centres, and support the continual investment that requires. As noted above, AEL is also managing its own reefer monitoring system, but for small and mid-sized carriers with a larger reefer fleet and a different operational model, reefer monitoring is a big challenge.

Supply chain targets

C sence is also targeting monitoring as a service for container terminals, depots and other parties in the supply chain that have responsibility for reefer containers.

These companies, van de Vliet added, are included in the customer base of Smith Europe’s reefer services business today. They, too, will want to digitalise at some point, and, with C sence, Smith Europe is ready to offer a service.

In Seatrade’s business, 95% of reefer boxes travel port-to-port, without leaving the terminal. C sence is monitoring the containers on the vessels, with data sent to its office by satellite in one packet every hour. C sence also receives BAPLIE data from Seatrade, and is able to monitor the reefer boxes against booking parameters.

The service has quickly ramped-up. C sence is now monitoring an average of 2,000+ boxes a day for Seatrade, and, at the peak of the kiwifruit season, that number hit 3,500.

In the first phase of the project C sence is focused on condition monitoring and identifying exceptions. Rick van de Vliet said it is clear that much more could be done, and C sence is now working with Seatrade on defining Phase II of its service offering. This will include algorithms for predictive maintenance and diagnostics, and other asset management tools that deliver value for the customer, as well as developing a portal where shippers can access reefer data.

Market interest

Since the Seatrade announcement was made in August, C sence has received a steady stream of enquiries about its service from lines and companies that handle reefer containers. Rick van de Vliet said many are at the hardware decision-making stage, which is difficult in a shifting technology landscape.

C sence, however, is hardware-agnostic. While there are differences in sensors, “the reefer data is the same in every telematic device”, said van de Vliet. For Seatrade, C sence connects to the Emerson ProAct software via an API, and it is prepared to connect to other hardware and software in the same way.

The hardware decision is important, but C sence is encouraging lines, companies and parties that have custody of reefer containers to think more widely about the bigger picture, and what they want to achieve with remote reefer monitoring, and how they will manage the data.

Some carriers, noted van de Vliet, are looking for a different route than Maersk took when it invested over US$20M (a figure mentioned to World- Cargo News) and installed remote monitoring modems across its entire fleet of reefer boxes. Other carriers might opt to install a system gradually as they replace their fleet, which could be over a period of 10 years or more, he concluded....


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