Cool and connected: Refrigeration technology revolutionizes Prime Inc.

Jacob2Consider the challenge of moving a trailer full of ice cream through the Mojave Desert.

Temperatures can top 110 degrees on these desert highways. Ice cream, on the other hand, must be kept at negative 20 degrees to stay fresh.

This might sound like a ridiculous scenario, but it’s actually a real job handled by Springfield-based Prime Inc., which operates the nation’s largest refrigerated truck service.

The company’s nearly 5,700 refrigerated trucks play an essential role in the national supply chain that delivers perishable goods to markets — including hauling ice cream from a factory near Las Vegas in triple-digit heat.

“We used to have problems with that, but we really don’t anymore,” said Jim Guthrie, an operations manager in Prime’s refrigerated division.

Today, ice cream shipments stay cool in the desert in part because of iterative improvements like better insulation and more powerful refrigeration units.

But new technology is also playing a major role.

deserttruckPrime’s trailers now have satellites that beam internal temperature readings back to the company’s headquarters, located near a business park in northeast Springfield. The company’s computers then check those temperature readings to ensure they are always within the range the customer specifies for each shipment.

If the temperature ever goes out of range, a fleet manager gets an electronic alert. Typically, the manager contacts the truck’s driver and asks the driver to adjust the temperature. But if that can’t happen for some reason, the manager can adjust the temperature in the trailer remotely, even from thousands of miles away.

Prime leaders say the investment in the technology is worth it.

“There are a lot of details and a lot of risk when you are dealing with food and anything that people consume,” Guthrie said. “We make sure that we are doing everything necessary to protect the integrity of that product.”

The stakes are even higher with pharmaceutical shipments — where tens of millions of dollars’ worth of drugs can be contained in a single trailer. Pharmaceutical-makers often require that trailers maintain a temperature range of just 3 degrees.

snowtruck“Sometimes these commodities can get very expensive,” Guthrie said. “You’re potentially handling a large dollar amount of freight on any given shipment, and you have to make sure that it stays at the right temperature and that it’s picked up and delivered on time without any damages.”

The ability to keep a trailer within such a tight temperature range is a major improvement over what trucks were capable of 20 years ago.

“When I started here, our refrigeration units were not even close to what they are now,” said Prime operations manager Stan Auman. “Our variances were usually at least 10 degrees. If it was really hot outside, it could vary more than that.”

The need for precise, consistent temperatures is driven by both customer demand and increasing federal oversight of food and medicine shipping methods.

“Recently passed laws regarding food safety and an even more challenging regulatory environment have made the business of transporting temperature-controlled goods more demanding,” said Sean McNally, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Trucking Associations (ATA). “This evolving environment requires industry groups like ATA and its members like Prime to stay engaged and on top of emerging issues. Those organizations that do are well-positioned to better navigate the myriad of applicable rules and regulations.”

One drawback to being in the refrigerated trucking business is the added fuel expense. Each refrigerated tractor-trailer actually has two diesel engines working simultaneously — one to power the truck and the other to run the refrigeration unit.

With so much fuel being used, Prime focuses on keeping those costs down. The company constantly monitors prices at truck stops and uses calculations to determine where drivers should stop and how much fuel they should purchase at each location.

“We utilize all kinds of technologies to keep that fuel cost as low as possible,” said Guthrie.

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One surprising aspect of the refrigerated trucking business is that the toughest weather challenge actually happens in the winter: delivering Valentine’s Day flowers.

On frigid days, refrigerated trailers switch to being heated trailers to ensure flowers and other goods stay at the right temperatures.

However, keeping the trucks at a consistent temperature during the Valentine’s season is difficult because trucks often have to make up to a dozen stops each day at various small flower shops.

At each shop, the trailer doors are opened and frigid February air rushes in — threatening to damage the fragile flower buds.

“It can be pretty cold when you’re delivering flowers in Minnesota,” Auman said. “And you know how roses are — they’re not very tough. When you’re at minus 20 degrees, it doesn’t take a lot of cold air to damage those flowers.”

To help combat this problem, Prime again turns to technology. The company’s trailers have sensors that detect when the doors are open. This information is beamed back to headquarters so that managers can help ensure the doors are open for as little time as possible — protecting the flowers inside.

“There’s so much technology on these trucks and trailers it’s unbelievable,” Auman said.

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