Seeing The World From A Container’s Perspective

Reefer containers (Image credit: Maersk)

When, in 2010, the leaders of Maersk, the world’s largest container ocean shipping company, asked, “What if we knew everything the reefer knows at any time?” at least one answer was obvious: It might reduce the incidents of rotten bananas and wilted flowers in its refrigerated containers (called “reefers”) due to temperature malfunctions.

With 300,000 of those units circulating the globe, the potential benefit was huge, both for customer satisfaction, and in a commensurate reduction in insurance expenses. (Close to half of its claims arose from those technical glitches.)

What wasn’t so obvious was how to do it.

“Ocean distances are vast,” explained Catja Hjorth, Head of the company’s Remote Container Management (“RCM”). “The existing GPS tech developed to support terrestrial mobility would leave a big part of a reefer’s journey with no connectivity, so it wouldn’t work for us.”

Instead, Maersk forged first-time partnerships with Ericsson on satellite tech, and AT&T on mobility, and came up with a bespoke solution. It was halfway through that process, with the tech already piloted, that the company had to decide if it would go forward with the expense of attaching modems to hundreds of thousands of containers.

“We decided to go ahead because it would be a competitive advantage,” Hjorth said. “It was something that drew on our unique global scope, instead of ignoring it.”

That scope included back-end staffing and systems that were adept at servicing containers one of two ways: Either a problem would reveal itself during full service checks before reuse or, hopefully, malfunctioning units were discovered by visual inspection in transit. Both approaches were inefficient, especially the time and expense of those lengthy service checks.

Data from the RCM sensors — tracking air supply and exchange, temperature, and humidity — promised not only to reveal shipping from a container’s perspective, but new and/or changed processes to put it to use.

“The first reaction to technological change is often skepticism.”

“We developed an easy-to-use interface that showed users predictions on reefer failure,” Hjorth explained, “which enabled staff to plan what needed to be checked or repaired, therefore, map each day’s service schedule.”

“Usage is close to 100% because people saw that it saved them time and effort.” In the last two months alone, the system has caught and corrected 150 cases of temperature failures that would have likely led to claims.

The business case for RCM is measured in operational savings and supply chain improvements, and it may eventually be sold as a customer benefit. Hjorth and her team were spun off late last year to manage the program’s development, and have a small team in Denmark supported by 40 staff in Chennai, India.

More innovations will be forthcoming, as there are projects underway looking at more robust preventative maintenance based on the data RCM collects and more indicator systems and tools for staff to use at terminals.

“Up to now, we’ve focused on getting the system operational,” Hjorth said. “Looking for answers to questions we haven’t yet asked comes next.”