Magazine Article | August 15, 2013

Do You Need A Mobile Data Collection Makeover?

By The Business Solutions Network

Adapting its mobile communication platform to changes in the transportation industry is key to this VAR’s continued double-digit growth.

To appreciate what VAR and ISV Refrigerated Transport Electronics (RTE) does and where it fits in the IT channel, you need to first understand how the perishable foods and medicines you buy arrive on the shelves of your local grocery stores and pharmacies. In some instances, this process begins at a manufacturing plant in another country and may include several modes of transportation — including refrigerated trucks, cargo ships (called vessels), and trains. RTE provides data acquisition hardware and software that helps the producers, transporters, and buyers of these perishable products monitor and control the refrigerated containers (called reefers) to ensure products don’t spoil during their journey from the manufacturing plant to your home.

Factors such as increasing awareness about food safety, consumer spending on high-value perishable goods, and replacement of refrigerated vehicles are driving growth in the refrigerated transportation market. In fact, according to research from Global Industry Analysts (GIA), the refrigerated transportation market is projected to surpass $6.5 billion by 2015, and North America represents the largest market for refrigerated transportation.

For nearly three decades following its inception in 1981, RTE found its niche in this market by selling and installing refrigerated monitoring and management solutions on large vessels. Most of RTE’s customers spend their days working at ship terminals or working on large cargo vessels counting inventory and ensuring refrigerated reefers are operating properly. RTE sells and installs solutions that tap into a vessel’s self-contained, three-phase power grids and alert the vessel and terminal workers if a reefer’s temperature reaches an unacceptable threshold. “This technology was first developed more than 30 years ago, and it uses the electric power infrastructure to transmit data,” says Donald Vinson, president of RTE. In order for the power cable transmission (PCT) system (i.e. running data over the electrical system) to be successful, vessel owners and terminals had to install the monitoring system, and the reefer owners had to install the PCT modems, which transmit the data captured from the reefers (e.g. the temperature of the container) to the monitoring systems via the internal power grid. If any one of these components were missing, then the system could not function. “Years ago, most shipping companies were self-contained, and the same business owned the vessel, terminal, and reefer,” says Vinson. “Over time, however, vessel sharing has become more common, with multiple companies sharing their vessels and carrying their own as well as their partners’ cargo. The result of this trend is that the percentage of reefers in a given location has declined.” About three years ago, RTE saw its PCT sales becoming stagnant. After investigating the situation, the company learned that it was becoming too difficult for its salespeople to coordinate all the different decision makers necessary to approve a purchase. “Also, companies that did purchase our reefer monitoring and data collection solutions were only able to use the solution about half the time because their reefers were often used on vessels that weren’t equipped with the PCT equipment.”

Create A Monitoring And Data Collection Solution That Addresses Customers’ Needs Today
After identifying its business challenge, RTE’s engineers went to work developing a new solution. The team evaluated several communication platforms and, after weighing the pros and cons of each, created a line of new products that support one or more communication protocols, such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, GSM (global system for mobile communication), and broadband Ethernet. “We found the ZigBee standard to be particularly effective for backhaul because it supports wireless meshing,” says Vinson. “This means that each wireless modem serves as a repeater and can be connected across the entire length of a large cargo vessel without requiring power boosters or other equipment.”

In addition to offering its customers flexible communication options that were much less invasive than PCT-based solutions, RTE upgraded its monitoring and recording software with the release of GRASP 3.0, which includes a Microsoft SQL database, a communication server, and what RTE calls its Man Machine Interface (MMI). The MMI allows users to download trip records and pretrip inspection data. Additionally, the GRASP 3.0 platform was created using open coding standards, which makes it easier to integrate with third-party software such as GPS tracking solutions, terminal operating systems, and vessel planning systems.

RTE’s decision to create new wireless modems and update its system software addressed its customers’ business challenges in three ways: First, the new modems didn’t require interfacing with the vessel’s electrical system and allowed the data throughput to be increased, thereby allowing more functionality and better monitoring. RTE also developed a system that connects directly to the reefer data port, which eliminates the need to install a modem in the reefer. This modemless system allows vessel or terminal operators to make the buying decisions, as the reefer owner does not need to install a modem for the system to function. The modemless system, which RTE brands as NRRCE (networked remote reefer communication engine), can be installed by anyone with basic IP networking knowledge. This alone would dramatically increase the customers’ utilization rates of the monitoring technology. A third benefit was that refrigerated cargo could be monitored not only on vessels, but throughout the entire supply chain process, providing end-to-end quality control. “With our GSM-based modem, refrigerated units can be monitored on trains and trucks, and the system can be integrated with a GPS package that adds mapping data to the solution,” says Vinson. “Additionally, the monitoring system can be integrated with door sensors, so companies can more easily detect exact times and locations of cargo theft.”

Take Your Data Collection Solution To New Markets
Since expanding its reefer monitoring and data collection offering, RTE has experienced a noticeable rise in sales once again. In 2012, the VAR grew 43 percent over the previous year, and this year it’s expecting to do an additional $1.2 million in sales compared to last year. To keep its momentum going, RTE opened a new facility in Panama to service the Latin America market. It will soon be opening two new office locations — one in the United States and one in Asia. “It’s important for us to have offices near our customers,” says Vinson. “Not only is it helpful to answer a customer’s question in their native language, it also helps us more quickly troubleshoot IT issues.”