Food distributors face a multitude of challenges, many of them directly related to transportation. For instance, in just another year, diesel engine exhaust emission regulations will change following the last change only 2½ years ago. Engines designed to meet the 2007 rules are expected to consume more fuel than post-2002 engines that burn more fuel than earlier engine models — all this at a time when fuel prices remain at or near record levels.
At the same time, food distributors face growing labor shortages as they seek to maintain an adequate number of drivers doing a difficult job. Providing an attractive and safe work environment has become vital to retaining drivers in a labor pool that seems to be shrinking for all sectors of the transportation industry.
To address these factors and a number of others, the Food Marketing Institute devoted one of its two general assembly sessions during the FMI Productivity Convention/Exposition to a panel of experts drawn from suppliers to trucking. The convention met in Kissimmee, Florida, October 23 to 25, 2005, and was relatively well attended despite the unwelcome appearance of Hurricane Wilma on October 24. Leonard Kennedy, senior vice-president and chief operating officer of the software company UPS Logistics Technologies, Ignacio Aguerrvere, director of marketing and product development for Carrier Transicold, Chris Adkins, senior vice-president — marketing at Great Dane Trailers, and Jim Fancher, product marketing manager for Volvo Trucks North America, took part in the discussions.
Better route planning
Noting that fleets will retain equipment currently in use well into the future, Kennedy said that food distributors can help mitigate the high cost of fuel by planning routes that minimize mileage. A number of technology products for route planning are available and many fleets already take advantage of them. One key to improved fuel economy is making more effective use of the routing and scheduling tools already in service, he said.
Engines built to meet the 2004 emissions standards, which went into effect in late 2002 as a result of a consent decree between the Environmental Protection Agency and major engine manufacturers, are already designed for alternative fuel use, Fancher said. Those engines can operate with up to 5% of alternative fuel in the diesel fuel blend. By 2010, engines will be designed to use up to 20% biodiesel in the fuel blend. Currently, biodiesel blends rely heavily on soybean products to make up the 5% component in biodiesel fuels. In Europe, Volvo is testing some man-made fuel components that are not petroleum based, but those probably are 10 to 15 years away from the general truck market, he said.
While not directly related to alternative fuels, trailers can have an impact on fleet fuel economy when it comes to factors such as proper tire inflation, Adkins said. Several automatic tire inflation systems have come to market in the past few years. Great Dane has seen its installation of tire inflation systems for new trailers nearly double recently. “We've also seen rekindled interest in wide base single tires,” he said. “While single tires don't fit every fleet application, they do help reduce fuel consumption.”
Reduce trailer drag
Reducing the aerodynamic drag imposed by trailers can help improve fuel economy, Adkins said. Great Dane foresees the use of skirts and fairings on trailers to help cut drag. The key to cutting trailer drag is to use practical devices such as fairings while other approaches such as vortex generators and redesigned rear frames may be more problematic, he said.
Fuel prices will help determine what devices are used on trailers, Adkins said. If fuel becomes expensive enough, the objection to things like redesigned rear frames may recede, he said. In addition, Adkins said trailers can be built with interior liner panels that help prevent the escape of insulating gas from the foam in trailer walls. Maintaining insulation integrity can reduce fuel use by allowing refrigeration units to run fewer hours during a delivery route, he said.
Most refrigeration unit running time is spent in low speed cool, which raises the question of whether such a large engine should be required for units, Aguerrvere said. A possible alternative might be a smaller engine equipped with a turbocharger to provide the increased horsepower needed for the high-speed cool mode of operation, which is needed for only a small percentage of total unit operating time. Another alternative might be purchasing refrigeration systems with electric standby to eliminate the need to run on diesel fuel while a trailer is waiting to be dispatched.
Minimize empty cooling
Cooling trailers prior to loading is another factor in reducing fuel consumption, Aguerrvere said. Fleet managers should maintain trailers carefully to ensure that they can be cooled quickly. Records should be kept on how long a trailer needs to be cooled and a schedule followed to ensure that units do not run excessively prior to loading, he said.
Integrated cold chain monitoring is already available and will become more prevalent, panel members said. Smart chips in food packaging should soon be able to communicate with refrigeration units to ensure that thermostat settings match the needs of the product, Aguerrvere said.
Temperature monitoring inside trailers has a long history, but until recently checked only air temperature around the product. Placing something akin to RFID tags inside the product packaging will give food distributors the ability to track actual product temperature, Adkins said.
Truck electronics are probably more advanced than any other part of the transportation picture, Fancher said. Electronic modules have the capability to collect more than just engine data. A connection to the trailer allows fleets to monitor tractor and trailer performance and transmit that data to managers in real time.
Safer work environments
Maintaining a safe work environment must go beyond the simple things like cab structure and injury prevention devices such as air bags, Fancher said. Many fleets have already adopted collision avoidance radar systems. Those system can be enhanced with sensors to monitor the presence of other vehicles in a driver's blind spots. Additional devices to help drivers concentrate on the road instead of looking at features inside the truck could include heads-up displays to place vehicle operating information on the windshield in much the same manner that high performance aircraft project flight data into the pilot's field of view, he said.
One of the main causes of heavy truck accidents is the driver becoming distracted (or falling asleep) and wandering out of the traffic lane, Fancher said. For the past five years, Volvo has been testing a system in Europe that sets off an alarm to alert the driver when the vehicle departs from its lane of travel. Preventing lane departure can be accomplished in at least two ways, he said. One system requires that sensors be imbedded into the highway. Another possibility equips the vehicle with radar or sonic sensors to set up a 360° shield around the truck.
Keeping drivers satisfied goes a long way to ensuring safe operation, Kennedy said. For a technology standpoint, that means giving drivers the tools they need to do their jobs. This can range from detailed routing information to specific instructions on getting to a particular delivery point. Some fleets with wireless communication systems are working on paperless delivery systems that allow drivers to capture signatures or other proofs of delivery without the time-consuming and frustrating necessity of handling paperwork. At the end of the day, the driver turns in an electronic device instead of a pile of receipts, he said.
“I guess I'm beating this tire inflation thing to death, but it is important for driver safety,” Adkins said. “Automatic tire inflation can help prevent flats, blowouts, and tire fires, all factors in maintaining driver safety.”
Prevent driver injuries
In the food distribution business, drivers do more than simply point a truck down the road. Conditions during delivery expose drivers to the potential for accidents, Adkins said. To help prevent slips and falls, good lighting inside the trailer is important. Great Dane has begun to offer LED lighting in its trailers. Those systems light up as much as 60% faster than other lamps, especially in the frozen food compartment of a multi-temp trailer.
Anti-rollover systems are being developed for trailers, Adkins said. “I know those systems are expensive, but when perfected and installed in large numbers, they will save lives,” he said.
Some might think that automatic lubrication systems for trailer support legs are trivial, Adkins said. However, cranking the landing gear up or down provides an opportunity for a workers comp claim every time a driver hooks up or drops a trailer, he said.
Remote trailer tracking is beginning to be widely accepted in the trucking community, Adkins said. The problem with installing tracking systems seems to be that every tracking system vendor wants to use a different antenna. “If we could just convince the tracking companies to agree on a common antenna for all their systems, trailer builders such as Great Dane could install the wiring at the factory when the trailer is built,” he said. “Right now, we have nine tracking suppliers in the business, and everyone of them uses a different antenna. Common wiring could be put in at a minimum cost and would greatly enhance system installations.”
Maintenance costs and technician training requirements could be reduced if systems could be made less complex. Refrigeration units that cool and heat using the refrigerant circuit for both tasks provide a good example, Aguerrvere said. If the refrigeration circuit could be separated from the heating circuit, the total system would require fewer parts and less maintenance, because repairing a heating problem would not require that the refrigeration system be opened.