When it comes to the efficient transportation of milk and other dairy products, time is tight. Dairy processors must move selections in the most effective manner if they are to minimize operational expenses while maintaining food integrity and safety. While evolving refrigeration and temperature monitoring technologies are helping to enhance performance, operators still face such major challenges as driver shortages and congestion at loading docks and on highways.
A key issue for processors and their customers is creating transportation schedules that enable workers to immediately unload products when vehicles arrive at their destinations, analysts say. The objective is to avoid the bottlenecks that often occur when many vans and trucks arrive simultaneously at loading docks, which can create long wait times that drive up labor and energy costs.
“That is where things breakdown,” says Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing, a Gurnee, Ill.-based market research, education and consumer-packaged-goods consulting firm. He notes that crowding at loading docks is a “serious problem” throughout the dairy industry, and careful planning is crucial to prevent vehicles from queuing.
“Operators are paying for the driver and the cost of keeping the engine and the refrigeration units running,” Wisner says. “It is a complex situation to manage, so it is not surprising that there are difficulties. But there also are more problems with it than there should be.”
Indeed, having a plethora of trucks and vans appear together can result in vehicles sitting for several hours before receiving attention, says Kevin Parnell, senior vice president of sales for PTG Logistics, a Mason, Ohio-based third-party logistics and supply chain management organization.
But with federal guidelines governing the hours a driver can work each day, it is important that companies minimize the downtimes, he says.
“More shippers and receivers are increasingly working with trucking companies to keep things moving,” he says. “It is crucial that the load is ready to go when a truck arrives at a plant for pickup, and workers are ready to offload vehicles upon delivery.”
The ideal situation, Parnell notes, is having two drivers operate a truck for 20 to 22 hours each day.
“The more you can use the resources in a productive manner, the greater the efficiencies and cost-effective you can be,” he says.
Such efficiencies also result from drivers avoiding heavy traffic by beginning their runs during the night to complete deliveries before the morning rush hour, and then returning to the processing plants prior to afternoon drive time, Parnell says.
“Trucks can have two additional hours of productivity each day by not getting stuck in traffic,” he states. For the best results, dairy processors should understand their supply chains “from cradle to grave and guard against bottlenecks and obstacles that can either cost you more money or jeopardize the quality of your product and your customers’ requirements,” Parnell says. “Customers that do not receive what they need and want are going to buy from someone else.”
A demand for drivers
Perhaps the largest obstacle to maintaining an efficient dairy transport system, however, is having the requisite number of drivers, analysts say. Wisner notes that many drivers are in their late 50s and it is difficult for the industry to attract and train younger persons.
“It is resulting in a big shortage of trucks and workers and resulting in higher salaries,” he says.
“There [are] more commerce and goods moving across the U.S. in trucks than ever before,” he says. “The number of drivers that are needed continues to increase, while the number of available drivers to fill those jobs continues to decrease. That drives the wages and transportation costs significantly higher, as it is more expensive to hire good, dependable and seasoned veteran drivers.”
To help reduce such problems, processors can contract with third-party operators to handle their transportation requirements rather than maintaining their own fleet of vehicles and drivers, Wisner says. Third parties can be particularly effective when there are wide variances in the number of products that companies must transport each day, which can result in many vehicles sitting idle during non-peak periods, he says.
“Processors have to weigh the tradeoffs,” Wisner says, which could include using a blend of in-house and third-party assets.
It also is critical for dairy processors to consistently monitor the temperatures inside refrigeration units to maintain product integrity and enhance food safety, he says.
“Ensuring proper refrigeration at all times is quite literally a matter of life and death,” says Ted Combs, industry principal, food, beverage and CPG, for OSIsoft PI System, a San Leandro, Calif.-based real-time data-management application provider enabling operational intelligence.
The necessary transportation temperatures will vary according to dairy product. USDA, for instance, recommends a Fahrenheit transit temperature of 39 degrees for fresh butter with a relative humidity of 75% to 85%; 34 to 40 degrees for cheese and a relative humidity of 65% to 70%; and -20 to -15 degrees for ice cream.
“To maintain top quality, ice cream must be kept at the desired transit or holding temperature,” USDA reports. “It also is very important to keep the temperature of ice cream constant during loading and unloading. Fluctuating temperatures cause the ice crystals in ice cream to increase in size to the point where the ice cream is no longer acceptable to the consumer.”
Operators will benefit from using trucks built specifically for transporting ice cream and by providing space for refrigerated air to circulate around the perimeter of the load to prevent heat conducted through the walls and floor from negatively impacting products during hot weather, USDA notes.
In addition, workers should stack dairy products as tightly as possible together when the boxes are at the desired transit temperature to better retain that temperature, the USDA states.
Keep taking the temperature
Processors typically use temperature-controlled refrigeration units, also known as reefers, to transport dairy selections. Such vehicles include vans, small trucks, semi-trailers and intermodal containers, which are designed to support products with a short shelf life. The refrigeration units also typically have electric power sources that allow cold air to continuously flow out of the bottom of the reefer and circulate to the top and back down.
Among the evolving monitoring technologies are sensors that enable processors to gauge the temperature within vehicles and that automatically trigger adjustments — for example, shutting down a refrigeration system if the product space becomes too cold. Other elements include data loggers that oversee cargo temperatures and set off an alarm if a problem occurs, tracking devices that monitor refrigerated freight with GPS technology in real-time, and bar code tracking of inventory that records each individual item in a shipment.
Drivers can typically set the refrigeration temperatures from the vehicle’s cab using digital controls and are able to store the readings in databases, says Stephen Mullin, vice president of marketing for Bush Refrigerated Vans, a Cincinnati-based provider of new and used refrigerated trucks and vans. He notes that maintaining such information is vital for operators seeking to comply with regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“Companies need to document the temperature control from point A to point B,” he says. “It is important for operators that come under compliance scrutiny to prove they were maintaining the appropriate temperatures throughout the delivery process.”
Combs adds that traceability is critical because “the real-time historical data needs to be accurately tracked backward and forward.”
Maintain a refrigerated focus
The use of blockchain technologies to monitor and transmit vehicle refrigeration temperatures in real time, meanwhile, will likely become increasingly prevalent in the dairy sector, Wisner says. Such technologies will better enable parties to determine who is at fault — the processor, supplier or third-party distribution company — and if product quality is compromised because of faulty temperature controls, he notes.
Parnell adds that products and vehicles also should have an electronic time stamp that indicates the time a truck was loaded, the vehicle’s refrigeration temperature during a trip, and the time and temperature during unloading.
“Operators must ensure that all the parameters, guidelines, rules and regulations are met through the entire supply chain,” he states. “Time-stamp technology brings value to the industry.”
To further sustain product quality, it is crucial that operators use the appropriate seals on refrigerated trailers to maintain the necessary temperatures, Wisner says, and that workers immediately situate the dairy products in refrigerated holding areas upon delivery to retail distribution centers or stores to preserve quality and enhance the shelf life.
“There can be adverse effects if operators do not properly manage, monitor or maintain those areas,” he says.
Dairy processors seeking the optimal refrigerated vehicles, however, should consider both their current and future temperature, payload and cargo requirements, Mullin says.
Indeed, because vehicles are available in a wide range of lengths and heights with various refrigeration configurations, including dual temperature zones in which the cargo area is walled off to support different coolness levels, it is important that operators “know what their business is going to need in two to three years,” he says.
Smaller delivery vehicles, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly energy-efficient, Mullin says. He notes, for instance, that operators can save on fuel costs by using designs in which the vehicle engines power the refrigeration units. In addition, many vans have electric standbys so operators can keep the temperature controls working when vehicles are not running.
In addition, technologies are evolving to more effectively track temperatures in vehicles and throughout the cold chain, analysts note.
Combs, for instance, says that operators are leveraging cloud technologies to expand accessibility and enable remote monitoring.
“Complete visibility into what is happening, in real time, and what has transpired creates many opportunities to improve,” he states, adding that “one needs to have a complete history of temperature readings, so a world-class historian is needed.”
“Everyone is looking for options and ways to be more efficient, do more with less and get the most value and bang for their buck,” Parnell says. “That can include having customers move closer to distribution centers or moving the distribution centers closer to customers. The more you can use the resources in a productive manner, the greater efficiencies you can drive and the more cost-effective you can be.”