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  September 6th, 2017 | Written by


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  • Ocean carriers have been busy building up their cold-chain capabilities.

Logistics firm DHL Global Forwarding put GSM-based 24/7 monitoring capability for temperature-sensitive shipments for the life sciences and healthcare industry on the water last year when it launched DHL Ocean Thermonet, a product designed for this sector that allows tracking and intervention around the clock using the company’s SmartSensor technology. Ambient temperature readings are automatically uploaded in real time via the GSM network to the company’s LifeTrack platform upon completion of key logistical events or detection of potential irregularities.

During the ocean voyage the sensors log data and transmit them once the vessels get in range of cellular signals. However, some shipping lines have real time tracking capability, notes Frank Cascante, regional head of Development, Temperature Management Solutions and Cold Chain Engineering, adding that DHL has service level agreements with the top carriers based on Good Distribution Practice, the standard guidelines for the distribution of medicinal products for human use.

Ocean Thermonet has been a huge breakthrough for our customers,” says Cascante, noting that there has been strong interest in the market, as this offers shippers a way to maintain quality at lower costs than shipping by air.

In light of the cost differential with airfreight, shippers in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry have been looking to shift more of their traffic to water. According to one estimate, this mode was set to advance from around 5 percent of global healthcare and life sciences volume moved in 2013 to 25 percent last year.

Chris Connell, president of perishables logistics specialist Commodity Forwarders Inc. in Los Angeles, says that the ocean carriers have taken great strides to develop cold chain solutions. For shippers of fresh produce, this has been particularly interesting, as the margins in this sector make it harder to absorb the high costs of airfreight, he adds.

Technology has certainly advanced a long way beyond monitoring temperature levels, extending to aspects like humidity or levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Purfresh, a provider of intelligent perishable supply chain management and control solutions, claims to be the first to have added monitoring and control of ozone levels into the equation for ocean-going reefer containers. The company offers one system for controlled atmosphere monitoring including ozone and another purely for ozone levels. Both offer real-time monitoring during the journey.

According to Purfresh, some types of produce–such as bell peppers, garlic, table grapes, pineapples and potatoes–have little or no benefit from controlled atmosphere but their shelf life can be extended significantly through control of ozone levels, which limits mold and bacteria growth.

Christian DeBlasio, president and general manager of Purfresh, says that most organic produce is shipped by air to overseas markets, but some companies decide not to offer organic produce overseas because of the higher cost of airfreight.

One of Purfresh’s customers, which ships about 100 40-foot containers of organic table grapes from South Africa to Europe every year, uses ozone generators both in its cold storage warehouses at origin and on the sea.

Besides control of ambient conditions, visibility is the second major strand of development, with the emphasis going to real-time updates, as DHL is doing with its Ocean Thermonet product. In 2016, the same year when this hit the market, Purfresh introduced, a third-party web interface for two-way communication with data controllers for reefer containers.

Another critical component is the infrastructure on land at either end of the journey. DHL slots its Thermonet traffic through a network of designated stations. Including airfreight facilities, which is where the Thermonet concept was first rolled out, this now comprises more than 110 locations.

Ocean carriers have been busy building up their cold-chain capabilities. Shipping line OOCL, for example, offers a range of reefer solutions such as ultra-low temperature reefers for temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius, fresh air management technology which controls the mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and reefers with dehumidification systems. In addition to the full container service, there is also a less-than-containerload offering in the carrier’s portfolio.

OOCL’s cold chain services don’t end at the port. Through its Cold Chain Logistics arm it offers end-to-end service including cold storage warehousing, customs clearance, reefer trucking, local distribution and direct store delivery.

New services keep coming on stream. In July Maersk started the commercial roll-out of its Remote Container Management system, which gives access to information about a reefer’s location, temperature and atmospheric conditions from anywhere in the world.

French shipping line CMA CGM recently announced a partnership with Seatrade, a specialized reefer shipping operator, to launch a weekly service from French Polynesia and Australasia to the U.S. East Coast and Europe starting in October with a string of 13 vessels. According to the pair, this is going to be the first direct weekly service between French Polynesia, northern Europe and the East Coast.

This trend is likely to continue, given bullish growth projections for international shipping of fresh food as well as pharmaceutical and life sciences traffic. Moreover, increasingly stringent regulations, such as serialization (which requires traceability of pharmaceuticals at the piece level), keep raising the bar for shippers as well as their logistics providers.

To some extent, logistics providers are hamstrung by financial constraints, Commodity Forwarders’ Connell points out. Reefer rates have markedly dropped over the past three years, which makes it harder for carriers to invest in new technology and services. On top of this, there are external factors such as the strength of the dollar and global political instability that affect long-term planning and investment, Connell notes.

Another question is how recent shifts on the ocean carrier side are going to affect supply chains and transit times. For one thing, the deployment of ultra large container vessels (ULCVs) has brought challenges to port operators that find themselves overwhelmed by the large volumes of containers brought in by such behemoths. For shippers of perishables, the scenario of their cargo getting stuck at a port threatens to ruin gains in shelf life from the use of better cold chain technology.

We have definitely seen at certain ports large spikes. Bottlenecks at ocean ports is a larger concern than one, two years ago,” remarks Connell.

He does not see a ready solution for this. “You don’t change the physical infrastructure of a port,” Connell says. “You can’t quickly build access roads.”