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Shipper embrace of Maersk reefer tracker shows visibility demand    12/01/2018
Four months after Maersk Line opened its refrigerated container monitoring program to shippers, 1,000 beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) are checking their shipments in real-time with the system, highlighting shipper demand for more visibility.

Maersk fitted its 270,000 reefer boxes with tracking sensors. Photo credit: Maersk.

The sizable shipper interest reflects the growing demand for increased visibility in the supply chain on what is happening to cargo, where it is and how to improve efficiency, and cut time and costs. Progress in that direction has been slow, however, for a variety of reasons, including the difficulty of developing technology and getting players in different parts of the chain to share information.

Maersk launched the monitoring program in 2015 to track each of its 270,000 refrigerated boxes by fitting them with sensors that communicate through cell phone networks and by satellite — sending information to the carrier’s computers that can store and analyze the information and communicate back with the sensors.

Maersk initially set up the program for its own needs and used it to, for example, monitor the temperature of each box and change it if it was too low or high, and also to track the maintenance needs of the box and schedule repairs in the most efficient way.

In September, the carrier for the first time opened the system, known as remote container management, to shippers and cargo owners, some of whom see in it a way to obtain the kind of visibility for cargo moving around the world that BCOs and logistics providers are increasingly looking for. About 500 of them signed up in November and December alone, Maersk said.

“What they can do, meaning the BCOs and cargo owners, [they] can then use this information to better manage their cargo, and they don’t have to wait until the containers get to the destination,” said Barbara Pratt, director of refrigerated services for Maersk. “They can do it real time while the containers are still moving.”

Aside from enabling them to track and adjust the temperature of the container holding their products, the program enables shippers to track the box’s progress along the supply chain, Pratt said. That includes not only while it is on the carrier’s vessel, but from the moment it is loaded to its final destination — whether it is moving on the seas, on trucks or by train, or not at all, she said.

Although the main focus for many participating shippers is harnessing the technology to ensure that the reefer temperature is maintained at an optimum level throughout the trip, others are looking at a range of ways to use the data to improve the logistical performance.

“Some customers that use high-value pharmaceuticals or high-value cargo are using most of the tracking and tracing capabilities,” Pratt said. “Other customers are using it with highly temperature-sensitive commodities and they want to know what those temperatures are. So some of them sign up for notifications if there is any temperature deviation” or any significant time period when it is not in contact with a cell phone tower or satellite.

Shippers can sign up for an email alert telling them when, for example, the temperature has fallen below a stated range, or the reefer power goes off, she said.

Shippers can log onto the system and see where the container is, what the GPS coordinates of the location are, if it is delayed, and whether the power is on or not, Pratt said. She cited the example of a shipper that thought its cargo was in Salalah, Oman, but the Maersk system tracked it down to a ship off the US Coast, she said. Shippers can also obtain the “datalogues” of similar information over time, Pratt said. If no GPS or cell connection is available, the information is stored in a memory on the container and uploaded to the computers when a connection is reestablished, Pratt said.

Prior to opening the program to shippers, Maersk used the system to cut the time it takes to conduct pre-trip inspections on reefer containers. Where the carrier in the past had to do a full inspection each time a container was returned, the constant monitoring through the sensors means that the company can predict the state of the container before arrival — enabling a much less rigorous inspection in some cases, Maersk officials said.

The carrier is now exploring the feasibility of using the tracking system for dry containers. One difficulty to be overcome is that a reefer has its own power source, which can also be used to power the tracking system, but dry containers have no such source, Pratt said.

“There is lot of opportunities out there,” Pratt said. “With reefer units, you are interested in supply air temperature, return air temperature. All of that information. With your dry containers maybe you don’t need so many sensors, or maybe you need different sensors. … So we are looking into it. We are testing it. We have got some devices installed on some of our dry boxes. And we will look at it and see what comes with the future.”


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