Gaining control over your facility's temperature and why remote, wireless IoT matters

Cold chain management   15 Nov 2018

Meeting ever-changing customer expectations is the only way to succeed in the digital era—that includes businesses storing and selling temperature-controlled and perishable products directly to consumers, warehousing temperature-sensitive goods, or those transporting them.

To maintain an uninterrupted cold chain and comply with the regulatory requirements, businesses need to ensure that the correct temperature and other conditions are maintained at all times. Regulations provide strict guidelines for continuous temperature monitoring, reliable alerting, and documentation of historical records for traceability and compliance. A fully validated a compliant solution helps to ensure that product integrity and security are maintained at all times.

Product safety and integrity and temperature go hand-in-hand. For foods and beverages, it only takes a few degrees difference in temperature to cause spoilage, whether it be from bacterial growth due to warm conditions or frost damage due to cold. Maintaining proper food storage temperatures and humidity can be challenging in a restaurant or retail center, and in large manufacturing and warehousing facilities, the challenges are compounded by storage and access issues and the sheer volume of space that is involved. Continuous warehouse temperature monitoring is mission critical to ensure the safety of temperature-sensitive goods, like fresh foods, produce, frozen foods, and medicines. 

Traditionally, temperature and humidity monitoring has required time consuming, manual, and expensive processes of setting up fixed facilities, such as cold rooms, freezers, walk-in coolers, and warehouses. Monitoring systems including sensors and probes installed in cold storage warehouses were wired and needed to be manually plugged in to an electrical source. Temperature and humidity data wasn’t readily accessible and could not provide a birdseye view across many facilities or granularly within one warehouse or location. Issues with installation, scalability, and maintenance have paved the way for a new generation of smart facility monitoring systems that solve the challenges faced by even the largest facilities. 

Challenges of accurate facility monitoring

Managing temperature loss

One of the primary challenges of maintaining warehouse temperature control is caused simply by the size of the buildings involved. Many are tens of thousands of feet in volume with up to 30-foot ceilings. Air stratifying is common in this context, where warmer air rises and cooler air settles, which results in air with differing temperatures. This can happen in smaller storage spaces as well, and poses a number of challenges, including difficulties with maintaining consistent temperatures.

Temperature loss caused by warehouse doors and loading docks can also impact temperature stability within a storage facility as products are transported in and out of the structure. Dividing air spaces with vinyl curtains and use of fans are ways to manage the airflow and temperature in these spaces.

Humidity control

Temperature and humidity are closely related, and any attempts to control temperature in a facility or warehouse situation are likely to affect humidity levels as well. While improper humidity levels can adversely affect nearly any product, maintaining proper humidity levels is particularly critical where food storage and handling take place. High humidity levels can encourage growth and degrade product quality and also compromise packaging. Conversely some products, such as fresh produce, require high humidity levels to maintain optimal freshness.

Condensation is related to temperature and humidity, and occurs when warm air flows over a cooler surface. The air will hit the surface and cause small droplets to form, which can happen even without overly high levels of humidity. However, humidity can exacerbate the problem, and it can especially become a problem when it comes to food storage. Reducing humidity or decreasing temperature differentials can help to prevent this problem from arising. In a large warehouse, minimizing air stratification can relieve condensation issues by creating a more uniform interior mass as well as through the evaporative effect of moving air.

Reducing costs

Increasing operational efficiency and reducing costs are challenges for any business maintaining cold chain storage. Waste and theft prevention and the reduction of human error are paramount to improving this, as is maintaining strict temperature control. Food handling facilities and large food storage warehouses struggle with maintaining temperatures in a cost effective manner. Facilities housing pharmaceuticals need to show that they’ve complied with regulations and other internal requirements for audit purposes.

Implementing energy-efficiency measures can significantly reduce energy loss and result in high ROI improvements. Connecting environmental data centrally can help illuminate weak spots, reduce risk, and optimize warehouse performance.

Digital transformation of warehousing and facilities

As a key link in the supply chain, warehouses, distribution centers, procurement centers, and other types of facilities must grow rapidly in number to keep up with the consumer demand. The cold chain market is expected to grow more than 11 percent over the next five years as greater quantities of temperature controlled products move throughout the supply chain.

Yet, many of today’s warehouse and facility monitoring technology systems are implemented on their own, or fail to exchange data with other systems. The lack of application integration is frequently cited as a primary barrier to effective facility monitoring and cost optimization. By contrast, data shows that businesses with fully integrated cold chains tend to perform better than non-integrated businesses.

Digital transformation is needed on the facility level to bring cold chain visibility into the future. 

IoT on premise

The Internet of Things (IoT) technology, which includes sensors that enable automatic data capture, ensure a continuous flow of real-time information on environmental and product quality conditions. When data is sent to the cloud and aggregated in a meaningful way, businesses can prevent product damage and theft, immediately detect any deviations and take corrective action to prevent waste, and share data with stakeholders, including customers, partners, and insurers.

Amazon, pioneer of the e-commerce driven warehouse transformation, now uses IoT and tens of thousands of robots to move and group products for specific orders. The company experiments with delivery drones and has been awarded two patents for connected wristbands which detect the position of a worker’s hands, and incorporate a haptic feedback system that’s designed to monitor the location of inventory bins.

IoT also enables supply chain automation. Products sitting in storage constitute only part of the journey through the supply chain. For businesses that are managing products while in transit and at rest, connecting the end-to-end data into a single platform and gaining a holistic view of the entire process delivers the ability to illuminate and focus only on the weak spots and mitigate risks.

How it works

A remote environmental monitoring device is a compact, wireless, digital monitor with data storage and internet connectivity. It automatically measures and registers ambient temperature and humidity data, which is stored on the device and continuously streamed wirelessly to a centralized cloud platform via gateway. The data can be analyzed and easily shared with stakeholders. If temperatures start to deviate from the pre-established boundaries, custom alerts are sent via the web dashboard, email, and SMS messages so that corrective action can immediately be taken. 

Through this smart, automated technology, the costs of installation and operation are cheaper, the system is easily deployed and scalable, and battery life allows for the devices to run for several months, or even years before requiring any recharge. Unlike wired devices, remote temperature monitoring devices do not require constant contact with a central system. If power goes out, the IoT continues to capture and store data until connectivity is restored, to ensure there are no gaps in data collection. 

Using probes and gateways, these devices can send data through greater distances and the speed and predictability at which the wireless data is transferred is similar to that of wired devices. 

Barriers to implementation

Although IoT and cloud solutions are making their way into storage facilities around the globe, the adoption of digitally connected warehouse systems remains the exception rather than the rule.

In the age of real-time, visibility is crucial to ensuring that a business’s cold chain works like a well-oiled machine. IoT-powered facility monitoring solutions offer an entirely new way to manage product quality, safety, and security, and to improve operational efficiencies.

Digital transformation initiatives for warehouses and storage facilities have been largely undermined by slow technology adoption rates. In many cases, businesses still rely on paper-based and PDF reports, or event spreadsheets and standalone systems that do not work in sync with other systems.

Traditionally, the costs of implementing modern IoT systems—particularly for smaller warehouses and facilities—have outweighed the benefits. However, this is no longer the case, as technology and services are providing ways to automate the installation process and minimize operational costs.

While pharmaceutical enterprises, food retailers, and supply chain logistics businesses are struggling to create a holistic IoT perspective, truly connected warehouse and facilities experiences and seamless supply chains are supporting the increasing volume of temperature-controlled products, which will only continue to grow. 

Cold chain storage providers and logistics partners will need to expand to meet this need, while satisfying the expected requirements of their customers and positioning themselves as an integral part of the customer’s brand initiatives. For major food brands, including restaurant chains and retailers, nothing is more important than ensuring the safety and integrity of their food. For pharmaceutical enterprises and their logistics partners, where medicines, vaccines, and active pharmaceutical ingredients need to be stored at strict conditions, even minor deviations can impact the safety and integrity of those potentially high-value products. 

All things considered, the future of facility monitoring is real-time and digitally connected. Is your business ready for the change?

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