Automated Control Systems in a Cold Supply Chain

Today, automated control systems are everywhere you look in manufacturing, storage, and delivery supply chains. Smart location, logistics, condition package management sensors and software govern every step of the process, from initial ordering to its final destination.

Centralized shipping control servers now ensure that all kinds of packages arrive faster and in better condition than ever before. Supply chain automation helps reduce labor costs and turnaround, too, while removing vulnerable human workers from dangerous locations such as heavy pallet storage areas.

Automated control also allows for tool-assisted management. When total process automation is impossible or unwise (i.e., with safety-critical choices, handling unexpected errors), data is sent to a human expert to finalize the decisions.

Machine learning algorithms and metadata logging can also help develop better long-term strategies, benchmarks, and targets.

Control system in Cold Chain Supply

Sensor-Guided Control Automation — The Present and Future of Cold Supply Chains

Within cold manufacturing storage and transit, digital and robotic automation is critical to ensuring quality control and meeting service standards.

All intelligent cold warehouses, vehicles, and control hubs (dashboards) now use a network of automated software and sensors to provide control interventions, vital data, and complete routine tasks. Better logs and receipts provide better accountability for third parties transporting and handling valuable, rare goods.

Why? Historically, refrigerated and frozen product manufacturers and wholesalers (e.g., food, drinks, pharmaceuticals, and microelectronics) struggled with the expense and commitment of demanding, time-consuming cold supply chains.

Every comprehensive cold supply chain uses multiple automated control systems, all parts working together to deliver a “rolling” supply chain in sync.

Automated systems and processes now help companies work around the challenges of running independent, moving power supplies, chronic refrigerator management and maintenance, hazardous workrooms, and fluctuating optimal temperature requirements for many different pallets of cargo.

Automated control systems can also automatically sort flagged pallets into storage categories on arrival. Sectioning allows warehoused products to be separated into different cooling levels (i.e., chilled, ice-cold, frozen) and lines. Auto-sort makes temperature management far easier while housing goods ready for sale or transfer.

Every comprehensive cold supply chain uses multiple automated control systems, all parts working together to deliver a “rolling” supply chain in sync. However, what are the core components of a world-class cold supply chain?

Automated Cold Storage

Automating picking and packing at source and stopover cold warehouses have revolutionized supply chain management. Robotic, wirelessly tracked lifters, rollers, and conveyor belts can now store, retrieve, and replace numbered goods pallets or boxes as they feed into the system without any human input.

QR pallet codes, GPS tags, and scan point database entries log every transaction made, the nature of the goods stored, and its internal and external (if applicable) destinations.

Automated software can track and monitor all deposits without the need for individualized, expensive sensor arrays or time-intensive, repetitive manual stock indexing.

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) also eliminate the need for human workers to enter mass fridges or freezers except for maintenance and routine checks. Limiting cold exposure to robotic loaders increases worker safety and job satisfaction.

What's one other huge advantage of using AS/RS? The systems are far less prone to critical errors. The average automatic control system holds to a benchmark of c.1-2 mistakes per month against a human-sort rate of c.12-15.

Removing the risk of human error reduces payouts on costly order corrective fees (c. $100-500 per order), helps limit system downtime, and generally boosts the company's reputation for delivery.

Footprint reduction is another big boon, too. By installing tighter vertical stacks than a typical human would need to access goods alongside automatically controlled transfer arms, warehouses are made safer, faster, and far more voluminous.

Closer automated packing alongside fast machine access and turnaround times can reduce energy usage costs by as much as c. 50 percent against traditional, human-controlled warehouses. Mobile, computer-controlled rolling racking extends these advantages further still for space-strapped buildings.

Limited, simple automation improves the quality and efficiency of refrigerated space alongside centralized automation, too. Rapid transfer airlocks, timer switches, and auto-closing vehicle doors provide better insulation, saving energy by containing ambient heat outside.

Smart Energy Management and Regulation

Even with full warehouse automation in place, mass refrigerators and fridges on the move still tend to consume electrical power.

On the road, cold container power is time-limited and copes badly with excess demands. Static HVAC space cooling can prove expensive and may overload grids in hot weather. Luckily, automated subsystems can help.

Automated sensors and simple programming can manage smart energy usage by turning off lights, engines, and moving motors that are not in use.

Using heat-responsive “burst” refrigeration rather than constant low-level idling can also help cut costs, make temporary transporter fridges more stable, reduce mission-critical maintenance intervals, and prevent sudden brownouts.

Making your own energy supply via a local grid is a strategy that automation can make a reality, too. Digital circuit control now allows for alternative, green, local power sources such as solar panels, windmills, and actuators to integrate into buildings and vehicles. Independent computer software controls voltage regulation, rerouting, and battery management.

Automatic Software Courier Routing and Itinerary Optimization

One of the trickiest tasks that a cold chain manager used to face was plotting the daily delivery routes. With time-critical goods in play, there's little margin for error when calculating travel distances and drop-off points.

Changing weather, late orders, and unique cold transportation challenges mean that any truly optimized supply chain needs to be flexible, changing hour-by-hour.

Automation aids human planners and drivers when they're creating and fulfilling itineraries by doing the hard work.

By using multi-source, active data inputs, order databases, and cloud-hosted warehouse logs, automated software can build hundreds of optimal routes in minutes.

Visual mapping displays simplify instructions and can easily translate into satnav orders, while timed, repeatable push notifications ensure the routes reach the staff they're meant for exactly when they're needed.

Adding machine learning can improve automatic processing further still. Cross-referenced “real world” data often catches obstacles and problems paper planning might easily miss.

Automatic Alerts and Correctives

What if a part in the chain goes wrong, underperforms, or breaks down?

Thanks to automatic sensor data relay and active monitoring, engineers and managers can be alerted in minutes if any part of the chain behaves outside of nominal readings. Software streams temperature, humidity, and voltage data to create a virtual image of the chain's machine and vehicle performance.

Passive automatic monitoring plays a role in streamlining cold delivery, too. GPS sensors and remote condition tracking can double-check estimates for automatically created plans against human performance, guaranteeing service quality.

Post-Delivery Metadata and Analytics

When cold deliveries finish up for the day, how does one improve further?

Automatic analysis software can collate data from an enormous range of sources and apply subtly optimizing changes from what it detects. Power usage, travel time, and depot use can all improve via automated software using machine-learn tweaks.

Dashboard analytics can also use automated data logging to create chart visualizations of performance and errors over time, aiding manual engineers and line managers.

As with technical problems, auto-alert networks can quickly flag up any outstanding issues via SMS, phone, and email push notifications.

Automated Monitoring Sensors and Systems from ELPRO

An automated control system is only as good as the sensors and monitors that feed into it.

At ELPRO, we've been developing, building, and supplying precision sensors and temperature data monitoring hardware and software to manufacturers and shipping companies worldwide for decades. Today, we specialize in providing intelligent temperature control, monitoring, and integrated systems that form the foundations of top-tier, professional-quality automated feedback.

With hundreds of products currently in stock, we'll have the sensor required to meet the need. If not? We can build it. Get in touch with us today to learn more about what we could do for your automated control systems.