Every day, every minute, a vast fleet of refrigerated transport equipment is on the move to feed the world, carting almost everything that can be found in the local grocery store. And there is no end in sight – the dramatic rise of the home delivery market for food and beverages, fuelled in part by the adoption of online delivery services by many supermarket chains around the world, has raised the demand for refrigerated transport over the last decade.
Hence it is no surprise that the trailer manufacturing industry is spoiling for a slice of that multi-billion pie. Especially in Europe, however, the harsh economic environment has made it hard to compete profitably, adding a whole new dimension to vehicle design – a healthy share of prudence.
Based in Avranches, a town in the northeast of France at the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel, Chereau is one big name that has understood the importance of thrift innovation early on. Back in the 1950s, Jean Chereau and his wife first realised that maintaining the proper temperature and quality of perishable produce during transport is one of the most important factors in the cold food chain. With the advent of new legislation to standardise the treatment of perishable freight, the duo seized the opportunity and presented an insulated truck body to the industry.
In 1966, Chereau patented a material called Polycle, a panel based on a polyurethane core sandwiched between two skins of glass fibre reinforced resin that soon gained renown for its thermal efficiency and mechanical strength and laid the foundation for a story of success that is second to none in France.
Since day one, Chereau has become a prominent name in Europe’s refrigerated transport industry; capturing not only the Eurozone, but also North Africa and the Middle East. Every year, 650 people build 3,500 vehicles at three production sites – each 100 per cent “made in France”.
Although the task at hand did not change in the past half century – temperature, pressure and humidity must still be kept under control with reliable technology that is simple to manage – the European manufacturing landscape has changed notably.
France has begun to lag behind the European elite in terms of per capita GDP. Until the 1990s, it was among the leading few on this metric but by 2010 had dropped to 11th out of the EU-15 economies – just above Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal. According to consulting firm McKinsey, low labour force participation of both old and young people, as well as high unemployment have put a notable strain on prosperity.
And in addition to the overall effect of the Eurozone debt crisis, France is also experiencing a severe structural mismatch between the supply of, and demand for, skilled staff – an issue that may be able to jeopardise the future of local manufacturing.
Considering the political framework and the fact that the market is as unforgiving as ever, Chereau’s constant performance is often interpreted as a strong sign of vigour and consistency. But, how come it has weathered the storm unscathed?
According to CEO Alain Guermeur, it’s all about finding the right balance. “A mix of reasonable cost and uniformly high quality is a tough balance to strike, but this is exactly what today’s customers expect,” he says. “As such, innovation must always fall on the right side of the economic line and focus on delivering the reliability and consistency that are so important when it comes to transporting perishable foods.”
Over the past half century, Chereau has found such balance by implementing a modular production process and sticking to what it could do best – building a thermally efficient vehicle. “Historically, Chereau is a specialist in custom-building, but to move into volume production, we had to come up with a more standardised approach,” says Guermeur. “To achieve the right mix of quality, price and performance, which is our most important selling point today, we now bank on a modular design concept just like the automotive industry.”
But, standardisation does not mean slackening. Chereau is continuously refining the building process to not only cater to the ubiquitous “more-for-less” attitude, but also limit the environmental impact of the brand as a whole. “Given that keeping food cold during transit requires multiple electrical systems and significant fuel and power consumption, refrigerated vehicles are fairly energy intensive. That’s why we made a point of finding the most innovative way to minimise or mitigate their impact on the environment.”
To achieve accurate, cost-effective temperature control and maximum product quality, both refrigeration system and trailer design are critical. Transport refrigeration equipment must be capable of operating efficiently in exterior temperatures that range from -40°C to 55°C while maintaining a precise internal temperature that can range from -35°C to 22°C. “Achieving that with minimal impact on the environment is a real challenge,” says Guermeur.
One strategy that has helped Chereau meet the stringent requirements of today’s transport scene is a strong focus on what Guermeur has labelled future-oriented thinking. “We actively encourage our staff and management to think ahead and anticipate future market development,” he explains. “We work closely with both our own clientele and our customers’ customers to identify and develop the transport solutions they will need tomorrow.”
To Guermeur, the combination of growing consumer demand and increasing traffic constraints in urban centres will be the next big challenge to face in the near future. “Both emission and noise regulation are the most urgent obstacles we have to overcome. Plus, efficiency is always on the agenda too. That’s why we have joined forces with Renault and Air Liquide to develop the first hybrid vehicle in the world featuring cryogenic refrigeration, the Quiet City concept.”
Although the idea of replacing the Diesel-powered refrigeration unit by a system based on liquid nitrogen may not be new, it is the “indirect” exchanger that makes the project world first, according to Guermeur. “The cryogenic refrigeration can reduce CO2 emissions by 15 tonnes per year and vehicle. The innovation lies in creating the refrigeration by passing air from the vehicle’s refrigerated compartment through an exchanger supplied with liquid nitrogen. We have also set up an independent electricity supply for the refrigeration unit and set up an air curtain to maintain the low temperature inside the body during unloading.”
But, even the most efficient refrigeration plants rely on the performance of the freight room. The Quiet City body, based on the proven polyurethane core developed by Jean and ??? Chereau, can guarantee a sound level of below 60 dB at a distance of seven metres, the equivalent of a normal conversation between two people. “Our sandwich panel is a good compromise between insulating performance, resistance and reparability,” says Guermeur. As a result, it is allowed to carry the Dutch Piek label, which certifies equipment emitting lower sound levels suitable for night time deliveries in urban environments.
“I think the Quiet City project has demonstrated the true value of French know-how in the design and manufacture of transport equipment,” he adds. “Especially in the current economic environment, it is a strong symbol that the future of French engineering is a bright one. But it’s not only about Chereau or the state of France, it’s about helping the entire industry reduce its ecological footprint. We want to drive the change to a more sustainable transport industry that is respected by the general public.”
To continue that process, the Quiet City series is only one variation of Chereau’s modular design concept. Altogether, the company can build some 300 different configurations between 3.5 and 60 tonne to customise a product according to the freight task.
According to Guermeur, end users have been highly cautious about the quality of food ever since population growth and urban development increased the distance our food has to travel to reach the dinner table – forcing transport companies to opt for the most advanced equipment available. “The transport of meat, salad or medicine cannot be improvised; it calls for specific transport equipment with a specific design. That’s why 86 per cent of all articulated trailer we sell are equipped with our special refrigeration chassis, for instance.”
Chereau’s specialty is the use of solid longerons that are double welded to allow for an increased life cycle and enhanced structural integrity. The front extension, in addition, is made of stainless steel to provide a support that is clean, easy to maintain and of pleasant appearance.
“We have chosen a wheelbase of 7,700 mm – the longest on the market – to simplify load distribution and enhance road-handling,” says CEO Guermeur. “On this account, we have also gone for a 2,100 mm track, which is 60 mm more than any other chassis can put forward.”
On the body side, Chereau has also come up with a transversal partition that can be locked in the cab to ensure a flawless multi-temperature transport. While the transversal partition is an optional feature, the rear part of every so-called Inogram body is based on special reinforcements to protect the side panel. “Our tests have demonstrated that our reinforced side panels can resist impacts better than any other product on the market,” says Guermeur.
Next to the traditional chassis and body building business, Chereau has established a second mainstay in the design and manufacture of transport equipment, such as the BC bumper. The chassis-mounted system is designed to reduce body damage due to impacts when docking, ensuring that the impact energy is absorbed by the chassis. “The BC bumper makes the dock contact function entirely independent of the shock absorbing function by ensuring that the chassis absorbs the impact energy,” says Pierre-Andre Landaret, Service Network and Parts Development Manager at Chereau’s head office.
“We have carried out an informal analysis of the state of six-year-old semi-trailers coming back to our workshop for maintenance. The objective was to compare the cost of maintenance of a trailer fitted with the BC bumper to the cost of maintenance of a trailer without the BC bumper,” he adds. “The first step was to estimate repair costs for rear damage, the second to divide it by the number of dockings made over the six-year period. As a result it appeared that the cost of a docking operation could be estimated to €1 for a trailer fitted with the BC Bumper and to almost €10 for a trailer without the BC Bumper fitted.”
On this account, Chereau’s largest French client, STEF TFE – operating 2000 vehicles throughout Europe – decided to have all new vehicles fitted with the BC system and retrofit the device to all trailers that go back to Chereau for maintenance.
“Thriftiness is the new normal in our industry. The margins are extremely tight so it’s becoming hard to pump money back into the fleet as the costs cannot be recovered through rate increases,” says Guermeur. “So we try to help our clientele save money wherever they can to be successful in a time of economic volatility.”