Companies collaborate to overcome shared challenges

The North American cold chain market is showing no signs of thawing anytime soon, according to various reports. In fact, it's only set to grow, from just over 110 billion USD in 2014 to 271 billion in 2020.

That market growth is ultimately a good sign. However, the challenges in facilitating food supply for an increasingly urbanized world is no easy task. From manufacturers of refrigeration equipment to shippers and transportation companies, each is looking for new ways to innovate while balancing new regulations, costs, and market growth.

And then there's the issue of food waste.

According to the UN Committee on World Food Security, 33% of all food produced around the world is either lost or wasted—23% of which is easily prevented with refrigeration.

Employees must wash hands 2.0

While refrigeration is a key component to preventing food waste, there's still the issue of improper handling of food and outdated or failing equipment, which not only contributes to food waste, but also human health. We've all seen the headlines: E. coli from ground beef. Salmonella from bean sprouts. Listeria from caramel apples.

In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a new rule that aims to enforce universal best practices for the hygienic transportation of both human and animal foods.

Titled the Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food (STF), the rule establishes new requirements for those in the temperature-controlled transportation sector, including shippers, loaders, carriers by motor or rail vehicle and receivers.

The new regulations affect everything from operations to equipment and training. On the surface, that may seem like an added cost for businesses in the sector—but it may in fact serve as a catalyst for using materials in new and innovative ways.

Fifty-three feet of collaboration

Reliability of equipment throughout the cold chain is paramount. Not only must equipment meet varied, complex and evolving regulations, it also has to be durable and, for the businesses purchasing and running the equipment, provide a reasonable return on investment.

That's probably no more true than in the trucking industry, where equipment—specifically the tractor-trailer combo—has to withstand incredible wear and tear, while keeping fuel costs down and meeting stringent regulations, among other challenges.

Wabash National recently announced an all-composite 53-ft. refrigerated trailer—an industry first. Designed in collaboration with BASF, the new “reefer” increases thermal efficiency by 20 percent, yet reduces weight by 15 percent compared to its aluminum, wood and steel predecessor.

“With fuel economy and environmental forces continuing to grow, it was important that we work together to create a lighter and corrosion free trailer,” explained Jim Reddy, new market development manager for the Performance Materials Division at BASF.

To that end, the trailer is composed of a fiber reinforced polymer that helps transport companies cut down on the energy costs involved in keeping their commodities cool. The particular blend of resins formulated specifically for the trailer's composite construction is also non-corrodible.

The 20 percent increase in thermal efficiency also reduces the energy cost of protecting perishable cargo. And compared to traditional hydrofluorocarbon foams with Global Warming Potentials (GWP) between 700 and 1000, the BASF resins used in the composite blend have a GWP of one.

For the next 18 months, Wabash will deploy 100 composite trailers and closely track their performance across all metrics. And if all goes according to plan, the new wave of refrigerated trailers could see full scale production as early as 2018.

Ultimately it's only one link in the cold chain, and there are still many challenges to overcome. Still, the increases to fuel and operational efficiency provided by a lighter trailer will hopefully go a long way—not only financially for businesses in the transportation and shipping communities, but also in satisfying new regulations, reducing the industry's collective carbon foot print, and, perhaps most importantly, meeting the needs of a growing and fantastically critical market.

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