When Duncan Lasley contemplates the future of truck and trailer refrigeration systems, he's confronted by two trends. Lasley and his engineering team must find ways to improve the reliability and durability of today's reefer systems, while reducing downtime and life cycle costs. At the same time, though, he must develop what he calls “blue sky” projects, i.e., experiment with new technologies and power sources for reefers in anticipation of customer demands, regulatory changes, and other issues.
“We have to constantly fine-tune the technology we have in the box today, but we also have to keep thinking outside the box in order to prepare for tomorrow,” Lasley explains.
As manager of product development for Thermo King's trailer refrigeration systems, Lasley must keep an eye on three core areas: technology, process, and people.
“Technology, which is always changing, allows us to give customers what they want in terms of product capability. Increased capacity, tighter temperature control, better diagnostics and improved communication interfaces will never go out of style,” he points out. “The processes we use enable us to integrate new technology into our products so that we can satisfy our customers' needs, as well as our own. We want to drive costs down and improve reliability. Improved processes help us do that.”
The final area is people. “If we don't have the right people, those who can improve current products as well as think outside the box, then nothing happens in the other areas,” Lasley explains. “Training them and motivating them to achieve these goals are critical.”
To tackle current reefers issues efficiently, technology, processes, and people must all fall into place. “The primary trend now is driving down life-cycle costs,” Lasley says. “Customers want the lowest possible cost of ownership. While this starts with the purchase price, it also includes service parts, maintenance, fuel costs, resale value, and limited downtime. They want to turn the reefer on, run their load, and not worry about it.”
Building such a robust reefer is a challenge, says Lasley, and not just in terms of customer demands. “We need it to be as bulletproof as possible for our own needs as well, especially in terms of providing warranty coverage and guaranteed service agreements. We're also finding that now more than ever reliability is the key. If we can increase uptime and thus profitability, customers are willing to pay a little more.”
On the “blue sky” side of reefer development, however, different issues come into play. “Today we're looking at any and all types of alternate power sources — from bio-diesel to electricity and even fuel cells — to spin the compressor,” Lasley says. “We also have cryogenic units. Change comes quickly in this industry — increased restrictions on noise, emissions and refrigerants are a few examples — so we want to be able to handle any curveballs that come our way.”
Lasley points to Thermo King's new cryogenic ST-CR 300 reefer for medium-duty trucks that runs on liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as a substitute for conventional diesel power. A cryogenic transport refrigeration unit has no engine or compressor, Lasley says, and since CO2 is a naturally occurring refrigerant, it provides good cooling capacity while eliminating ozone-depleting commercial refrigerants such as CFC, HCFC or HFC, as well as diesel fuel emissions. It's also extremely quiet.
Telematics is another area of continuous development. “The ability of reefers to transmit data across time and space can be especially critical in improving logistics or saving a load if something goes wrong,” Lasley notes.
“Tracking a reefer-equipped trailer, knowing the unit and cargo status, and being able to proactively get involved if there is a problem is part of a new value proposition for refrigerated carriers,” he adds. “They have to weigh the cost of this technology versus the benefits it can provide. When all the numbers are known, the decision is often pretty easy.”
Lasley also thinks the way transport refrigeration systems for trucks and trailers are viewed — even by the general public — may well undergo significant change in the future. “These products really impact our global societies in many positive ways,” he says. “Think of the things that are widely available because we have these systems — fresh produce, frozen foods, medicines, blood plasma — the list goes on and on. Transport refrigeration has a value in society and we're proud of that.”