Q&A: Maersk Container Industry’s Futuristic Reefer Tech


Søren Leth Johannsen, Chief Commercial Officer of Maersk Container Industry (MCI), spoke to Laurence Doe, Online Editor at Port Technology, at Intermodal Europe 2017 to share his thoughts on how the company and the reefer industry is progressing.

Johannsen has been CCO at Maersk Container Industry since 2005. Based at the company’s R&D and Test centre in Tinglev, Southern Denmark, he is usually found travelling on the road to connect with MCI’s customers and partners around the world.

MCI manufactures refrigerated containers, refrigeration machines and dry containers to its customers in the intermodal industry, which covers shipping lines, fruit multinationals and leasing companies.


How could reefer operations at ports improve?

“Seen from MCI’s perspective as a reefer container and equipment supplier, we focus on value creation for our customers and this naturally involves the whole transport chain.

We believe that there are inefficiencies and costs also at the terminals presently that we will be able to assist in reducing in the future with our reefers. This could be smarter ways of surveillance, energy consumption reporting, better interfaces etc. This will be for both existing and new fleet and we can achieve this by working together along the transport chain and implement new technology together.”


What else needs to change?

“I would like to see a more individual cost assessment of the equipment that is coming into the terminals.

Our reefer energy metre, introduced in Spring this year to our Star Cool reefers, is going to give the container lines a transparent way  to see the kWh that the reefer uses at the terminal.

Once we start to see more Star Cool reefers or other reefers with energy metres on, I believe we will start to see our customers asking terminals why they are paying a fixed fee.

We are leading the way with this trend but I believe that energy metres will become a standard feature.

I think that’s great because in this industry we have been a little bit haunted by the fact that there is little in the way of standards and how to measure power consumption.”


MCI Box moving through a banana field

What’s the customer feedback like for the energy metre?

“The container lines are telling us that they will use it to look at what the cost is to operate a certain shipping lane compared to the freight rates they are charging so they can get the full transparency of what the costs are down to the single box, which is great.

The container lines will also be able to supply real carbon footprint data to their customers. This will be an important value proposition – especially we when consider airfreight as an alternative.”


What has MCI research and development been focusing on recently?

“In the reefer industry you have a PTI (Pre-Trip-Inspection) to check if the machine is functioning correctly, which is carried out by the depot before loading the reefer with cargo.

That is a straightforward operational process that we have reshaped and called ITI, Intelligent Trip Inspection, so that PTI becomes obsolete and instead the reefer can do a self-diagnostic while it is in operation.

This replaces downtime with uptime.

We have also developed an energy saving software that puts produce quality first. It avoids undershooting compared to the set point while saving energy. The key is that while the fruit is still warm, we run the cooling system at full capacity, but once the cargo is at set-point temperature we optimise fan and compressor speed to provide exactly the cooling needed to preserve the fruit. This unique principle has increased the energy efficiency of Star Cool reefers dramatically – we easily talk 50-75% reduction compared to conventional reefers.

The software is being used by a wide range of container lines and fruit multinationals to optimise their reefer operations while taking care of the cargo. The energy savings will definitely also benefit the terminals.”


What benefits has the Intelligent Trip Inspection brought customers so far?

“Transparency, and replacing downtime with uptime. That they can see how the machines are performing and they can avoid the PTI reducing downtime and improving utilisation.”


What innovation can we look forward to from MCI in the future?

“We are pursuing many ways to further digitalise our operational and maintenance services as well as product features. Top of mind is to make life easier and more efficient for our customers and the service providers from the moment the reefer is in operation.”


There’s been a lot of excitement about blockchain. Do you see how it could help the shipping industry?

“It certainly has interesting perspectives when the shipping industry can track financial records through Blockchain to know where the cargo is, what the cargo is, what has happened with the container to gain full supply chain transparency. I also believe that the container lines and ports would benefit from a common system and standard.

What is equally important is that the port authorities are on board as this is often a delaying factor due to issues such as bills of lading, documentation, and customs control.”


What are your thoughts on MCI appointing Sean S. Fitzgerald as Chief Executive Officer?

“I’m really excited about Sean starting.

He comes with a strong manufacturing and technology background, most recently from an industry which, I think, in many ways, is like ours, and he is very experienced with effective operations, commercial excellence and product management. He also has the international experience that is required in this truly global industry.”


Has the collaboration with Hapag Lloyd helped MCI understand its products better?

“We have worked with Hapag-Lloyd for many years and were happy to be rewarded the recent order of 3,700 reefers. [Hapag-Lloyd Makes Huge Maersk Reefer Container Order].

During the last four to five years, we have been doing a lot of interesting trials together such as venturing into using our Star Cool reefers with CA for specific produce.

One of the challenges that we’ve tackled is that farmers grow this produce organically, but once its exposed to SO2, it loses that status, which is sad for the shipper, trade, and the owner of the reefer box as the chemical reacts extremely aggressively with aluminium, copper, rubber and other components of the container and machinery.

What we’ve been doing is testing the use of high levels of CO2 instead of SO2.

The laboratory results show that CO2 can replace SO2 and solve the problem of how to preserve produce, keep it organic and stop container corrosion.”


The market is losing interest in specialised reefer transportation, is it because of the reliability of mixed services offered by carriers such as Maersk Line and the strides in development made by innovative reefer specialists such as MCI?

“There is a very aging reefer bulk vessel population of around 25 years old on average, and I don’t see the shipyards being really focused on the specialised reefer segment anymore.

So, we are seeing a conversion of traditional reefer bulk operators investing in container vessels with a high utilization of reefer plugs.

What the container lines have been offering is high frequency but sometimes at the expense of transit times.

That has been to the benefit of the specialised reefer trade as they offer fast point-to-point services, which is very important for fresh produce.

We launched our controlled atmosphere system, Star Cool CA, in 2009, which allowed produce to travel for longer in a reefer box.

With CA, we can push past the original limit of 21 days of preservation for bananas, avocado and mango – the big commodities.

After that we looked at the low respiring produces, like blueberries, for which we came up with the method of injecting nitrogen and CO2.

We see that Star Cool CA is really helping the conversion to containers – the operators also see that they get many of the same features as they have on the cargo compartments on the reefer bulk vessels.”


Why has MCI changed its branding?

“We wanted a clear and unified brand identity in line with our growing product portfolio and longer-term ambitions serving the entire container shipping industry. By retaining and updating the iconic Star Cool crystal, the new product logo pays homage to the creators of the first logo design, who were the engineers responsible for the original Star Cool product.

We have also carried through the Star Cool crystal to the Star Cool Integrated and MCI Box logos. With this we aim to show our commitment to excellence across all product lines and the value they provide, such as exceptional durability, cargo care, energy efficiency, product quality, customer service and of course our specialism in reefer technology.”


How well has the market received MCI’s new R513A refrigerant system for Star Cool containers?

“Hapag-Lloyd is the first liner to broadly introduce the R513A refrigerant system into their fleet with their recent Star Cool order. In general, the market can regard it as an insurance that the machine you’re buying won’t become obsolete and that your old fleet of reefers won’t become obsolete because we have a retrofit.

The price is still slightly higher compared to R-134a traditionally used.

But, with the new regulations, the price difference between the old and new will diminish over time and then we will start to see a switch.

That is the whole purpose of it, to make sure you have a fleet that has an alternative refrigerant.

We would like to drive it further, which will require new platforms, and when we introduce a new platform we need to ensure that it comes down to a GWP of 1% benchmark only, and that will only be through natural refrigerants.

The container lines are not keen on continuing to use artificial refrigerants. They want to get away from that because of the risks involved with using certain chemicals such as pricing, patents, availability, they can also have a problem with counterfeit products – a big issue a couple of years ago, so they want to get away from that.

We haven’t seen a great demand for natural solutions on new platforms yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that slowly building up next year, when we see the prices on the old refrigerants really increase.

We believe in propane from a performance and a technical point of view however at the end of the day, we will work work with our customers to find and develop the best solution and we have the capabilities to do so.”


Read more: McKinsey, a London-based global management consultancy, has explained its container shipping 2067 vision, which revealed that the shipping industry is starting a whole new era of disruption as new technologies force players in the maritime supply chain to either digitize or face their demise

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