These are hot times for cold deliveries. The trendline had been steadily climbing for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the demand for temperature-controlled deliveries of perishable food, beverages, and medical supplies to last-mile retail and home-delivery customers.
That growth means opportunities abound for carriers and logistic providers “to solve critical needs in the first, middle, and final mile of supply chains to meet the same-day delivery expectations fueled by the Amazon Effect,” points out a recent white paper.
The authors of “The Age of Amazon: Why 3PLs & Last-Mile Delivery Fleets Must Draw Closer,” issued by the Customized Logistics and Delivery Association and the Transportation Intermediaries Association, contend that Amazon’s rise created ever-higher expectations for fast delivery “in every supply chain and freight type, from truckload to [less-than-truckload] and single delivery items.”
Amazon currently delivers within 24 hours to 72% of its Prime customers, the paper notes. The same-day delivery of food, beverage, and grocery items is considered a growth arena for non-parcel freight, according to the authors.
“E-commerce has really disrupted the cold chain market over the last year as grocery delivery became more popular with consumers,” says Mike Stimler, director of strategic accounts for Wabash. “We’re seeing major grocers making significant investments in the home delivery space. In some cases, they are implementing completely new models, with significant capital outlays, from warehousing through delivery.”
Observers believe the pandemic-driven demand will lead to permanent changes.
“While demand will likely decline from its peak, we believe the desire for increased home delivery of food is permanent,” says Chad Heminover, president of Shyft Fleet Vehicles & Services. Shyft is the parent firm of Utilimaster, a vehicle upfitter and manufacturer of truck bodies as well as step vans and final-mile delivery vans built on OEM chassis.
As fleets work to make the most of those opportunities, we’re seeing trends in refrigerated delivery vehicles ranging from more efficient (and silent-running) transport refrigeration units to refrigerated vehicles designed to ease driver workloads and satisfy final-mile customers with when and how their orders arrive.
“As last-mile delivery becomes more of a crucial segment in the supply chain, there are many key trends we are seeing in refrigerated delivery needs from fleets across the country,” says Great Dane’s Jonathan Schultz, product manager for national accounts. Great Dane offers Johnson refrigerated truck bodies.
Weight and Body Specs
Two broad weight categories of trucks deliver temperature-controlled freight to last-mile and home-delivery destinations. Heavier deliveries to grocery stores and other retail outlets are typically handled by Class 5 to 7 trucks and/or tractor-trailers. Cold goods headed straight to homes are mainly moved by Class 1 to 4 vans and straight trucks.
The two application types “mirror each other in terms of increased volume,” Shyft’s Heminover says.
However, some say there’s a definite trend toward lighter-duty refrigerated delivery vehicles. Great Dane’s Schultz says there’s demand for lightweight truck body designs that fit under 10,000-pound chassis GVWR. “These designs help fleets in the diversity of use due to the national driver shortage as well as driver record requirement reduction.”
Heminover points to the Utilimaster Velocity line, built on the Ford Transit cutaway chassis and available in a version under 10,000 pounds. He says these trucks “fit in nicely between a cargo van and our traditional walk-in step van, the Aeromaster. Its low step-in height, ease of entry and egress, and quick cargo access make it an ideal delivery tool for last-mile grocery delivery fleets.”
Thermo King is seeing the same thing. “What we’re seeing for the final mile are fleets looking to smaller Class 2 to 4 vehicles, especially in urban areas where a CDL-size truck is not needed,” says Tracey Patterson, truck product manager. The company offers TRUs suitable for a range of small and medium-size vans and truck applications.
Stimler also says demand for under-10,000-pound vehicles is the biggest trend Wabash is seeing in last-mile reefers. But that can be a challenge.
“Traditional refrigerated truck body construction presents challenges to achieve workable payloads in this light-duty space,” he says. “Beyond the initial weights, traditional foam sidewalls absorb water weight over time, further diminishing their payload and thermal capacity.” Wabash’s patented molded structural composite technology allows for greater thermal efficiencies at comparable weight, or lighter boxes at similar thermals, without the weight gain over the life cycle, he notes.
Beyond the vehicle weight class, body needs may vary greatly. Schultz says Great Dane is seeing fleets that either need truck body designs that fit very specific delivery applications, “or the complete opposite of a very universal design, to deliver multiple product configurations and temperature ranges.”
Shyft’s Heminover addresses the issue of fleets looking to spec a delivery vehicle for specific applications. He says the manufacturer can scale the truck or van body and refrigeration requirements to meet different delivery needs, across Class 1 to 7 vehicles.
“At Utilimaster, we have a dedicated team of sales and engineering professionals that works with our food and beverage and grocery delivery customers,” he says. “There’s a big difference if you’re carrying potato chips versus bottles of water; ambient-temp dry good versus frozen entrees.”
Thermo King’s Patterson also points out that it’s not just about cooling. “In cold regions, keeping cargo warm is just as important. That’s a regional trend, but it also applies to multi-temp deliveries [in one truck] of dry goods plus fresh and frozen goods.”
Another trend is a movement to all-electric refrigeration systems, “achieved either through cold plate refrigeration technology or mechanical refrigeration,” says Great Dane’s Schultz.
The push to drive down vehicle emissions is driving the rollout of more battery-electric or fully electric trucks. Spec’ing electric transport refrigeration units also means trucks can run silently in urban areas and dense suburban neighborhoods.
“While the chassis might be the largest piece that drives discussions toward body weight for payload and range, the cold chain fleet involves another critical component — the transport refrigeration unit,” explains Wabash’s Stimler.
Electric reefer units offer “significant potential benefits,” including reduced maintenance and higher regulatory compliance as more stringent emissions regulations are enacted, says Scott Parker, Carrier Transicold’s product manager for truck products.
“Carrier Transicold’s electric Supra unit, which is in development for 2023 rollout, is an example of a zero-emission truck unit that will provide maximum range while supporting either battery-electric vehicles or conventional engine-driven trucks,” Parker says.
The company’s engineless Neo 100S TRU is designed for engine-driven light commercial vehicles used in last-mile delivery. On the road, the Neos 100S is powered by the vehicle’s alternator. When parked, it can be plugged into a 230-volt source for precooling and staging, eliminating idling the truck to maintain refrigeration.
Parker says conventional direct-drive units are often selected for smaller trucks and delivery vans. “Engineless refrigeration systems, such as [our] 20X, 30S and 35X, are smaller and lighter and rely on the vehicle engine to turn a belt-driven refrigerant compressor, located under the hood. Beyond that, the systems operate electrically.”
The manufacturer’s 40X and 50X direct-drive units are designed for small trucks rather than van applications.
“An economic alternative to refrigeration units with diesel engines, direct-drive systems also help fleets reduce environmental impact, since there is no additional fuel consumption or related emissions from a dedicated refrigeration unit engine,” he says.
“When it comes to the growing number of smaller vehicles for last mile, fleets are looking to an electric temperature-controlled solution because they are lighter for more payload and operate quietly,” says Thermo King’s Patterson.
Thermo King is partnering with Electric Last Mile Solutions to build an all-electric refrigerated Class 1 delivery vehicle, integrating its E-200 all-electric refrigeration unit into the ELMS Urban Delivery electric vehicle prototype.
Thermo King’s first electric TRU, the E-200 is sized for medium-sized vans and trucks can be spec’d on both electric and “engine-powered” vehicles.
“Final-mile fleets running larger refrigerated trucks are looking for sustainable solutions, which electric power supplies,”Patterson continues. “Electric TRUs also have fewer moving parts, which increases reliability.” She adds that TRUs with “electrical architecture” offer improved vehicle fuel efficiency and their lower weight increases range overall.
Of course, electric reefer units may not be the best fit for all applications, at least with current technology.
Parker notes that diesel-powered TRUs, such as Carrier Transicold’s Supra series, will provide maximum range. “And diesel units run independently of the truck, so refrigeration is maintained, even when the truck ignition is off as the driver walks groceries to the customer’s door.”
For Class 4 to 6 trucks engaged in local delivery, Thermo King offers larger TRUs driven by vehicle power — however, Patterson says, “we do see us going as well to electric architecture in these applications to help increase fleet sustainability.”
Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge contributed to this story.