Road Trip
As dairy distribution evolves, truck and trailer refrigeration technology rolls forward.
by Lynn Petrak
It’s one aspect of a business that is truly customer driven. Trailers and trucks that transport dairy products reflect a swift pace with emerging technology, as manufacturers make continual improvements literally from the inside out.
Hauling products from point A to point B may sound simple enough, but as anyone who has overseen the distribution chain can attest, there are a host of challenges and issues involved. For example, the changing nature of dairy manufacturing has, to varying degrees, impacted the way products are shipped on trailers, trucks and refrigerated units, commonly known as “reefers.”
As dairy conglomerates take over more regional brands and cooperatives expand their reach, distribution is inevitably affected. Drivers may go longer distances to reach customers, while broader product lines require different temperature controls and compartment set-ups.
Consolidation also has had an effect on equipment decision making, which has become increasingly centralized. “Dairies are getting more and more combined, and you may have one or two buyers getting 300 trucks at a time. It’s what they decide,” says John Cook Jr., plant manager for Dole Refrigerating Co., Lewisburg, Tenn., a family-owned business that manufactures plate systems and dual-contact freezers.
According to Jeffrey Caddick, purchasing agent for Henderson, Ky.-based trailer and van body maker Hercules Manufacturing Co., having more brands under one umbrella often leads to the desire for a more uniform fleet. “Dairy people are very much into identity. They want [each of] their trucks to look the same and [the fleet] to stand out, so when people are going down the road they say, ‘There is Dean Foods,’ for example,” he says. 
Beyond aesthetics, there are other reasons for uniformity, according to Doug Lenz, director, trailer product management for Thermo King Corp., Minneapolis. “Customers will ask, ‘What are you doing for consistency?’ Their preference is to move toward one product, so from a driver-training perspective, it is consistent,” he says.
In addition to effects from consolidation, efficiency is a major concern for all types of dairies. “Our customers on the dairy side are trying to figure ways to work together, in partnerships, to increase density or reduce operating costs,” says Greg LaFrance, director of sales and marketing for Johnson Truck Bodies, a Rice Lake, Wis.-based division of Carlisle Cos.
Steadily rising fuel prices have facilitated new customer demands and, in turn, trailer and truck designs. “The environment has changed and everyone is just more sensitive to costs. They want cost-effective alternatives and equipment that will last a long time — truck bodies that will last through three chassis and more,” says Caddick. “And with consolidations in the truck-body industry, dairy people are not always getting the value they used to get, when they purchase products with familiar names on them.”
Safety is another hot topic in reefer technology. “We are seeing a focus not necessarily on hours of service but of driver retention and safety issues. The guys in this business are asking us to build a safer and quicker body to exit and enter,” LaFrance says.
Lenz has fielded similar requests about driver concerns. “We hear more from customers about what we can do for ease of use. It’s getting more and more difficult to attract drivers, and a multilingual capability is a more important,” he notes.
Body Shop
Providing trucks and trailers that are as easy to use as they are reliable is no small task. To that end, there has been ongoing improvement in trailer and truck design, from the body itself to cooling systems to tracking capability.
Passing them by on the highway, it may not look like there have been many changes in reefer bodies over the years, but a closer inspection reveals that there have been definite refinements. Johnson Truck Bodies, for example, has made adjustments to its fleet. According to LaFrance, 2004 was a busy year for parts orders and new purchases; customers have invariably placed a priority on maintenance. “Customers want to have the body last longer, so we are putting stainless hardware on there. Instead of driving around a rusty old box, they want a nice, clean fiberglass truck body,” he says.
Last year, Johnson launched a new refrigerated retail dairy-delivery vehicle. The new truck, which has the nostalgic look of 1950s-era milk trucks, has an aerodynamic design that is able to accommodate both frozen and fresh products. “We have created a cab/chassis combination that is modified to duplicate the way retail milk has been delivered for years, a bifold side door, a sliding passage door and a large front windshield. We also marry our body with a customized roof that slides on top of the modified cab,” explains LaFrance, adding that there has been a spike in demand for home retail delivery. “It’s a comeback of convenience.”
When it comes to bodies, some dairy companies choose to stick with aluminum exteriors. “Our customers are finding that when they damage a fiberglass body, it is more expensive to repair. With a sheet-and-post body, you can take it to any trailer or body repair shop, and the construction has proven to be efficient in a lot of different applications,” Caddick says.
Hercules has made various refinements to its aluminum bodies, designed for efficiency and economy. “We use an 8-inch extruded aluminum front radius, which is TIG (tungsten inert gas) welded, rather than utilizing corner caps. That gives a nice aerodynamic effect that is both watertight and structural,” he says, adding that Hercules designers have also incorporated certain technology common to the larger trailer manufacturers with respect to the foaming operation. “This allows us to have a flatness to our interior and exterior linings. We have a higher density and smaller cell structure with our pressure foaming, which provides a better insulating value in our truck bodies.”
Lift mechanisms are another area of concentrated improvement. Last year, Johnson developed a hydraulic drop-floor delivery system called the PowerPlatform™. “It’s essentially integrated into the body of the truck, so it’s not a lift gate per se. It’s ready to go when it gets to the delivery location and it’s been saving about an hour per delivery day,” LaFrance says. “There is less maintenance with this lift, because there are not exposed cylinders, and there are safety benefits as well.”
L&K Equipment, Inc., Chichester, N.H., has been promoting its innovative delivery system. The original “Slick Lift” is a fully hydraulic lift, which is integrated into a section of the truck body floor, and offers several advantages, according lift inventor and company president Ron Wroblewski. “It may not be the answer for everyone, but it is the answer for most dairies because of the way it works,” he says. “For example, when a driver is working on the inside of the body, he lowers the lift and is surrounded by three sides so he can’t get hurt. Plus, it rides perfectly level at all times. There are no pins to wear out, and it has two moving parts, which will last almost forever.”
Safety has been a pivotal net result of the Slick Lift system, Wroblewski says. “The delivery system has a perimeter safety tape switch that, when activated, causes the floor to lower automatically to prevent personal or cargo damage,” he says. “We heard from one dairy customer who has been utilizing this system for almost three years now, and workers-comp claims have been reduced by 85 percent. We have even had calls from insurance companies asking about it.”
Keeping Their Cool
Because of the high costs associated with breakdowns in the hauling of perishable dairy products, proper cooling systems are a key concern for buyers. The two main types of temperature controls for trucks and trailers — cold plate and refrigeration units — have undergone fine-tuning in recent times.
Cold plates are considered the venerable system, used in dairy transport for decades. Although it is older technology, plate manufacturers have made adjustments to reflect the needs of changing customers. Dole Refrigerating Co., for example, has focused on durability. “The biggest thing people ask about plates is the maintenance aspect. The reality is that plates may not be as flexible as mechanical systems, but they are more reliable,” Cook says. “With cold plates, you even have people who take them off and move them to another chassis — they are that dependable.”
For its dairy customers, Dole recommends its Econ-Cel™ system, which features a new brushless motor. “People said they liked that fan and we are ordering more units,” Cook says.
Meanwhile, dairies that employ mechanical refrigeration units can take note of recent advancements in those systems as well. Thermo King, for example, has developed new SB-110 trailer refrigeration units that feature new SR-2 controllers. “The controller was designed to make it easier for drivers to operate and enable plug and play telematic technology for documenting food temperature,” Lenz says. “The SR-2 controller also is multi-lingual to address the changes we are seeing relative to the background of the new drivers.”
According to Lenz, the SB-110 can be equipped with electronic throttle valve technology that provides additional temperature control and fuel savings and each unit comes standard with Thermo Gard Bronze protection.
Although dairies are faced with countless other prospects for investments, reefer-technology suppliers note that this is an industry that recognizes the importance of successful transportation. “Dairies continue to refine what they do. More and more, they want to get their name out there and also, because they know if they mess up, a lot of kids can get sick,” says Caddick, who adds that such a keen understanding is evident across the board. “I’m constantly impressed because when you talk to some foodservice drivers, the only thing they know is where they are going that day, but when you talk to dairy people, they know about all aspects of their operation.”
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.