Technology has changed the handling of perishables and in turn opened up markets.

Going back to the 1970’s, fruit from Central America arrived at what is now the Port of Baltimore’s South Locust Point Marine Terminal. At the time, the facility, built by the then Maryland Port Authority, was a state of the art distribution center and the second most popular site in the area, sitting adjacent to Fort McHenry, the home of the “Star Spangled Banner”.

The banana terminal was labor intensive, but quite sophisticated in its time. In the hold of refrigerated vessels was fresh fruit - mostly bananas - in cardboard boxes. As soon as the vessel docked and hatches opened, the boxes were manhandled onto conveyors for discharge. Each box was color coded, indicating where they were to go once inside the terminal’s warehouse. The inside conveyors, with coordinating colors, were set to directly distribute them. The fruit rarely sat at the terminal for long and the color coding indicated where and how the boxes were to be moved inland. Waiting at designated locations were longshoremen to direct and load either refrigerated trucks or boxcars for rail travel, hastening the distribution process.

Cold Chain

In 2016, the International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, issued a case study on projected refrigerated export markets. Assessing the global market for interested U.S. manufacturers and service providers, they dubbed the shipping and distribution of temperature sensitive commodities, “The Cold Chain”.

“The Cold Chain” was defined as “The transport of temperature sensitive products along a supply chain through the use of thermal and refrigerated packaging.” The technology utilized to realize this goal was the application of the physical means to insure appropriate temperature conditions along the supply chain. The report indicated that there was an expansion of commodities dependent upon this technology which included food, pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies.

The report indicated that cold chains vary by region, location and temperature requirements for shipping. This case study, a part of a larger Top Markets Report, featured a simple four column flow chart describing the cold chain. Moving from left to right, beginning with column one, the harvest. The second, the processing or fresh packaging (included refrigeration, transport, and distribution). The third column, warehousing or transport (air/sea/truck or rail) and the fourth column, consumers, including restaurants and retailers. The report also confirmed that “cold chain systems provide both export and ultimately import opportunities.” The interesting part of the report was what it didn’t say about the importance of both handling technology and international and domestic intermodal transportation.

To complete today’s cold chain system, we now have the combination of ocean carriers, container manufacturers, refrigeration technology, seaports, and truckers and rail carriers for inland transport. In addition, distribution centers have embraced technology that has enhanced the quality of their cargo’s stop on the way to the consumer. Today, the number of fresh commodities loaded into specially designed refrigerated containers that are monitored throughout their voyage has expanded significantly. Ports provide specially fitted container racks with plug-in ability or special buildings with temperature-controlled capability. In the age of technology, terminals can monitor their cargo so that shippers can be assured of having their cargo arrive as fresh as possible. Consumers in turn can enjoy receiving these products.

Cloud and Sea

What is left of the banana trade via Baltimore, or for that matter any other port terminal handling temperature sensitive cargo, is no longer as visible. The sophistication of the Locust Point terminal at the time, has since been far outmoded by the use of computers and containers capable of being handled, shipped and received while maintaining proper atmospheric conditions suitable for the type of cargo they carry and the length of time that it takes to get it to final destination. Computer and satellite technology provide instant access to container status and location from anywhere in the world.

Constantly searching for technological advancements, Maersk Line, as an example, is continuously adding state of the art tracking systems to its reefer containers fleet. In addition, Maersk recently ordered new containers that will be chilled by the Carrier Transicold’s NaturaLINE System. With a goal of reducing the environmental impact of its substantial container fleet, Maersk’s initial order of 100 of an eventual total of 200 refrigerated containers will feature the use of natural refrigerant carbon dioxide, providing a safe, non-ozone depleting gas. This gas has a safe global warming potential (GWP) of 1, and other positive consequences.

According to a recent press release, the NaturaLINE attachment will be installed on 40-foot-high cube containers. Maersk will utilize the containers on routes between Europe and the Americas. The company presently owns 270,000 refrigerated containers that participate in over 900,000 transports per year.

Maersk has also added “smart” technology to its refrigerated container fleet. RCM, or Remote Container Management, is the application of simple technology that includes a modem, GPS, wireless SIM card and a satellite link. The system allows access to the precise location, condition and other details of Maersk’s entire fleet of reefer containers. The GPS system allows global tracking while the modem and SIM card enables the reefer’s atmospheric condition and power status to be collected and stored. Transmitters are mounted on each of Maersk’s reefer containers and satellite transmitters are mounted on each of Maersk’s 400 vessels. Regardless of where the container is, the information is transmitted back to the RCM teams around the world.

Robin Johnson, Maersk Lines chief information officer, indicates that, “ Maersk’s container activities including vessels, containers and cargo will all be connected by technology. Johnson indicated that, “The next step will be the ability to achieve the next level of operational efficiency with our vessels and how our customers buy our products and services. Tech is going to enable it.” The development of into a comprehensive online shipping platform is well underway. Approximately 97% of customer bookings are now received via the site.