Buyers and sellers in the poultry supply chain know not to play chicken with chicken. Take a fresh or frozen bird out of its temperature safety zone for too long and it goes from nutritious to hazardous. If that transformation goes undetected, the consequences can be tragic for both the consumers and the producers' business.
That's why Jeff Overstreet has always been a big believer in the power of technology to help manage the climate of his supply chain. He's corporate director of transportation and distribution for George's Chicken (www.georgesinc.com), a poultry processor and distributor based in Springdale, Ark. But today, more than ever, he and his competitors are subject to strict regulations when it comes to food safety. And his biggest customers have added their own demands for quality and safety. No matter how vigilant a producer is about climate control within their own four walls, those standards can go out the window when product leaves the dock.
"You're dealing with temperatures and variation tolerances within a couple degrees," Overstreet says. "That can be tough to maintain in a refrigerated trailer. We are primarily supplying fresh and frozen poultry. The temp specs will vary but usually we have one set for fresh, one for frozen, and even one for breaded product."
The temperature of these products is affected by every stop along their journey, and Overstreet knows that a customer's refrigerated dock will be warmer than a refrigerated trailer. He's also aware that he'll be held responsible for the integrity of his product until the customer takes ownership. If that point comes after a multi-stop tour of the service region, the product might have suffered for it.
"Warehouses vary greatly in their time to get trucks unloaded," Overstreet says. "When your driver sets foot in the door, to the time product gets received, if that's a couple hours, the product starts to warm up. The time you spend at the customer dock at those unloading points, that's where you'll have your real challenges."
Private Fleet vs. Contract Carriers
Overstreet is more confident about the cold chain quality delivered by his company's own fleet of trucks than that of some of the transportation contractors he deals with.
"The outside carriers will always pose more of a problem than your own fleet," he adds. "That's why we have onboard technology in all of our trucks—to give us the climate control information we need. But the bigger portion of our transportation business is contracted and in today's world when trying to pull from a group of trucks in a nation that's short of equipment already, sometimes you'll get guys who aren't quite as diligent as you'd like. And when dealing with JIT inventory like ours, we need a sellout every day. Sometimes you get a little desperate to find a carrier who will take it and you'll pick up a marginal person every so often."
For George's, managing the climate in their own fleet starts with efficient routing, and for that the company relies on software (Paragon). It puts all orders through this system and it factors in Hours of Service regulations, truck weight and distance to come up with the optimal schedule for the day.
"Any time you can reduce miles you can reduce liability when it comes to temperature," Overstreet says. "The shorter the better. A lot of times we're able to put together trucks that have 2 to 3 instead of 4 to 5 stops. The dispatchers may massage this if they know a customer can't receive at a certain time, but we get a template every day to work from that is very efficient."
ROI More than Technology
In this temperature sensitive industry, the ROI from such a system can be rapid.
"Going out to the fast food restaurants, we saved big money the first year because we took out two routes completely and filled up other trucks that were going in the same direction," Overstreet explains. "You're talking labor, trucks, trailers and it was easily $150,000-plus that first year. Now with the dynamic scheduling we're going through we're hoping to get that just in reduced miles annually."
His private fleet is based out of the company's Virginia group which covers a 650-mile territory out and back. This includes areas like parts of New York City, where finding reliable refrigerated carriers can be daunting. In addition to routing technology, this fleet uses in-cab navigation (PeopleNet, www.peoplenetonline.com) that uses GPS to ensure accurate pick-up and delivery times, reduce fuel costs and improve driver efficiency.
"This takes guesswork out," he says. "We know when something got to the customer's dock and how long it's been there."
Every load goes out with a temperature regulator in the trailer keeping track of the temperature as the GPS keeps track of miles and location. That's important to Overstreet because if the quality assurance manager at the customer site is doing their job and product doesn't meet spec, it won't get delivered.
"The last thing any of us needs is for something to happen to the public," he adds.
That's why climate-control in the supply chain is more important than ever.
"I've been doing this for 20 years and I can remember when a temp recorder was rarely used in a trailer," he says. "Today we put them on every load. And even with some of the less expensive units, at $25 a pop, 600 a week, all of a sudden it gets a lot more expensive to ship chicken."
That doesn't mean it's a hard investment for him to justify. In fact Overstreet maintains that losing just two loads of product can make the technology look cheap. Nevertheless, he suggests taking great care in selecting the right technology for your operations.
"We took two years looking for the right routing software," he says. "Get details from references and find out how it's great, what they do different from you, and what you have that isn't at all like what's going on with them. We're going at a pace that's unbelievable, but don't let that drive you to a mistake that you'll hang onto until it drains more of your time and energy than it should have. I did that early in my career with onboard communications in 1998, and the technology wasn't as prevalent as it is today. I really wanted to be the guy who brought that function to our company. But it was poor hardware, low functioning abilities with the software at the dashboard end and overly complicated for dispatch. We ended up pulling it all out and starting over. It was a costly mistake."
Fortunately, George's recipe for success in the cold chain has become an industry best practice, linking profitability to safety. And its future use of the Paragon software will help the company rate on-time performance of carriers used by its Western Division and better understand costs. "We will be able to select the best performing carriers to meet our customers' needs," Overstreet predicts.