Haul Monitor

Primary Connect operates one of the longest and most difficult transports of ambient and refrigerated food in the world. To safely move its product the length of the Australian continent daily, it entrusts its temperature and real-time monitoring to technology partner ORBCOMM.

The train line between Adelaide and Darwin is some 3,000 kilometres, making it one of the longest stretches of track in the world. In fact, it’s the eighth longest, by way of comparison, behind Paris to Moscow.

Moving perishable freight through an expanse of uninhabited desert has been a challenge since the earliest camel trains traversed it on their way to railheads with goods and services as railway expansion through Inland Australia moved further north.

In 2004 the 1,420 kilometre line from Alice Springs to Darwin was completed. Today the rail corridor is used by The Ghan passenger train and freight trains operated by One Rail Australia. Primary Connect, the logistics division of Woolworths Group, moves essential goods daily, Monday to Saturday, on freight trains to Darwin, on the edge of the Timor Sea, from Adelaide in South Australia.

The integrity of temperature-controlled cargo along a supply chain as big as this requires complete visibility to supervise and moderate cold chain operations in real-time, all the time.

Satellite coverage is crucial.

Along with a raft of strategic investments aimed at further enhancing its technological and data capabilities, the company since 2010 has been committed to making key upgrades to the satellite coverage on the corridor.

Part of this plan involved a move to the PT 6000 dual-mode unit for tracking and two-way control of its refrigerated rail containers in 2017, making it the first technology it had adopted from Internet of Things solutions provider ORBCOMM.

The PT 6000 is designed as a comprehensive reefer telematics solution that includes sensors, connectivity and enables network coverage through the support of a single SIM. Orders destined for Darwin that morning get picked for the day the same as they would at a local Adelaide store before being loaded onto a freight train.

The only difference, according to Ben Newton Primary Connect Head of Transport Development, is the not inconsequential 3000km rail leg in between. “Moving to the PT unit is important for the stores to be able to get real-time visibility and not lose contact,” he says.

“As we’re going up through the middle of Australia on what I suspect is the longest and most difficult distribution centre-to-store delivery task in the world, we are conscious about lifting the level of control of visibility around for freight on the corridor.” The effectiveness of this operation rests on meticulous temperature monitoring.

Having the latest advances in technology at its disposal can help determine whether its stores have the best possible supply chain, an ongoing focus, not without challenges, of the business. Not all of the produce, however, is just destined for Woolworths outlets.

On the return rail leg Primary Connect transports out of the Northern Territory melons and the majority of the mango crop for the entire eastern seaboard.

It’s an immense operation. As this part of the business has been commercialised, it means Primary Connect must return produce freight under a premier temperature controls service.

“The beauty of the PT unit is it has got the two-way controls of the fridge and the microprocessor so our ability to actually change temperatures and restart engines can all be done remotely,” says Ben. “You can also incorporate other sensors.”

Most of the temperature control containers are equipped with evaporators at the front and the rear.

There can be up to three different modes of temperature settings in the same compartment all of which can be monitored as well and linked back through to the Carrier Vector 1950 refrigeration system.

Notifications sent via a door switch will provide alerts should a door be opened or closed when it shouldn’t be.

This is a major benefit of satellite GPS tracking according to Sam Bambery, Primary Connect South Australian State Transport Manager.

“The PT unit isn’t just temperature monitoring but pinpointing location as well and can include geofence notifications,” he explains.

“It essentially comes with all of the options that you get in a standard GPS unit. Given we’re using it on a rail container it can’t quite go down to the level of EBS tracking. But it provides the two main elements of which we are after — location with current temperature and running condition of the engine.”

Sam and his team are constantly receiving micro communications from the refrigerator. Should a fridge fail they are alerted instantly.

In the rare event that there is some kind of issue making it impossible to recover via two-way communication, Primary Connect have a maintenance leg as a contingency between Adelaide and Darwin.

Under this scenario, the cargo either gets removed from the train at Alice Springs so that the fridge can be repaired or the freight undergoes cross docking, a procedure that entails distribution of the goods directly to a customer or retail chain with marginal to no handling or storage time.

“Long gone are the days where once it’s on the train you hope it gets to the other end all in one piece,” says Sam. “Having the live monitoring of the equipment allows us to make those agile decisions and save significant stock loss on our journeys.”

The other advantage of being able to change temperatures remotely means refrigeration can be reset to ensure it’s at the right temperature especially for any sensitive produce being moved.

On any given container there could be up to $100,000 of goods depending on the consignment.

For Primary Connect this often comprises a mix of fresh meat, produce and other chilled goods. “For every container saved you can be looking at up to $100,000 ,” says Ben. Indeed, reducing stock loss is another way of helping to mitigate costs.

Technology like the PT 6000 aligned with, say, new refrigeration technology can save between $150,000 to $200,000 a year in reduced stock loss over the journey according to Sam. “It’s something of an unknown given you don’t know what would have been lost previous to using the technology,” he says.

“But we certainly have had significant instances where we’ve been able to salvage product due to a live communication. Putting an exact dollar figure on that could be quite challenging. Needless to say, there have been substantial instances where we’ve been able to remove the element of stock loss right there and then.”

ORBCOMM’s BT320 unit.

Given the positive experience had with ORBCOMM on the rail corridor, a trial is being done with Primary Connect’s Adelaide metro fleet.

Eight rigid trucks operated by one of its carrier partners are currently evaluating the ORBCOMM BT 320.

Primary Connect sees potential longer term in using the units for the in-cab temperature monitoring they offer drivers while on the move.

Among its many attributes, the BT 320 provides two-way reefer control, maintenance scheduling, temperature compliance data, EBS connectivity, refrigerated vehicle tracking and real-time alerts.

The ability of utilising a simpler tracking unit on a rigid or a trailer is likely more suitable to increasing visibility without having to necessarily plug in to receive the rich information from its vehicle tracking integration platform.

There’s also a couple of BT 120s being trialled on Tautliners.

“That process began more than three months ago and it’s been encouraging,” says Sam. “The main thing for us during this trial is the user interface. The useability and the functionality of the user interface and what potential benefits that it can offer us over the other market competitors and our incumbent technology at this stage.”

In South Australia Primary Connect is looking to integrate all of its fleet tracking into one platform as opposed to multiple platforms.

“At this stage the ORBCOMM unit have done everything we expected it to do,” says Sam. “It’s certainly been really good consistent reporting. The fact that it integrates well into our current visibility program – Trimble– that’s been a big benefit to us as well.”

Trimble is essentially an all-in-one platform that allows Primary Connect to track freight movements inbound and outbound to distribution centres.

It can take GPS information in from multiple different providers and essentially provide a single point of contact for users to see where the freight is going all across the country.

As an aggregator, all of the telematics providers can integrate into one place, so it gives the end user the opportunity to essentially track their freight and ETA updates.

“The point of the system is you take feeds from multiple telematics providers. But where most of the telematics providers are focused on tracking and asset control, the visibility solution typically pulls in the order management, the routing, the planning and the time windows and match that up with the asset feeds to give you the visibility of what’s actually happening and whether you’re executing to the plan and proactively providing ETAs,” Ben explains.

Primary Connect not only co-ordinates its own fleet of equipment but works with other carriers like ABC Transport and Cameron’s who are using their own telematics solutions which need to be effectively integrated into the system as well.

“It works as a harmonized tool so you’ve got consistent data, irrespective of the technology the various transport companies are using, and visibility that can also take in things like the temperature control feed so it’s not just the tracking it offers, you can also monitor the temperature from those carrier partners on the platform,” Ben says. “ABC would have similar units to ours. That’s a bit of a distinction between the asset management versus visibility.”

With COVID restrictions now deep into a second year many freight forwarders and transport groups have been working at a sustained peak capacity.

Supermarkets which have been open the entire time have borne the brunt of extremities in consumer behaviour as state government mandates trigger sudden rushes on essential items.

The impacts of the market, however, are very much different between the national network and local operations according to Sam.

“From a South Australian market perspective the first wave had that panic element attached to it and a little bit of the unknown as far as availability of stock, but certainly in South Australia I feel like the consumers have got the trust and the comfort level that there is no need for that panic buying,” he says.

“As each of the lockdown waves occurs across Australia, we’re seeing a peak and a much quicker return to standard shopping habits. I think that comes from having a strong supply chain and a strong cold chain offering.”

Even so, the team in Adelaide must be cognisant of the Northern Territory market given the three-day lead time involved.

Therefore it’s critical that Primary Connect ensures they maintain a solid cold chain there as any sort of stock loss or empty shelves during those critical times would threaten to erode consumer confidence.

“Those are the sorts of instances where you will see panic buying pick up,” says Sam.

“We’ve been able to keep up confidence with the consumers and I guess minimise the requirements of that panic buying. I would say locally we’ve been quite lucky compared to what they might be facing in some of the other states. Certainly, from a South Australian perspective that’s where we stand at this stage. It’s not quite business as usual but it’s not as much of a peak as we had seen in the initial lockdowns.”

Ben, who shares in this outlook, points out that the lockdowns, many and repeated as they have been, over the past 19 months have actually provided occasion for the collective supply chain to get good at managing these fluctuations and fine-tune how it reacts to them.

A more pressing concern at the minute, he observes, is the management of drivers and logistics teams in navigating border crossings.

“We’re trying to get consistency between States and we’re advocating for adoption of the Freight Movement Code agreed to by National Cabinet to ensure goods keep moving and drivers are not adversely impacted. I think the other one we’re seeing is the strain it puts on the drivers at a personal level,” he says.

“Between different states, between NSW, Victoria, South Australia we’re seeing that reluctance to potentially cross borders given things change quickly, possibly facing lockdowns, being kept away from families, kept away from seeing their kids or whatever else. There’s just that level of uncertainty creeping in. Our chief concern is how do we look after people and make sure we have the right procedure safeguards to keep things moving?”