Most people would not choose to work inside a refrigerated shipping container, much less live in one. Fresh out of college, Barbara Pratt did both, and her research led to major advancements in the technology and methods of transporting refrigerated goods.
“Back then, a customer would put 20,000 kilos of fresh fruit in a reefer container, send it across the Atlantic for 30 days, and all we could do was view its condition on arrival with an occasional temperature recorder inside. It told us very little,” says Pratt, who is director of refrigerated technical services for Maersk Line in North America.
“With the ‘Mobile Research Lab,’ the converted container that Sea-Land built, we set out to learn all we could to improve the quality of long-distance shipments. And it turned out I spent the better part of seven years – a good part of my twenties – living and working in that container,” says Pratt, who today is in her 60’s, lives in a house and monitors reefers remotely from her office desk.
Apples to apples
Pratt is a farm girl. She still works on the family farm she grew up on – 180 acres of apples, peaches, pears, nectarines, even Christmas trees, just an hour north of New York City and her Maersk Line office in nearby Florham Park, New Jersey.
She knew she had found her career direction when she discovered the ‘Vegetable Crops Department’ at Cornell University. She was 20 years old and studying physics, biology, chemistry, computer science and math. It was the outlet she had been looking for to apply her love of science.
Pratt graduated from Cornell in 1976 with a degree in physics and was accepted into the University of Delaware’s “Post-Harvest Physiology” graduate programme, but turned it down. Her former Cornell professor had offered her a job – a special project for Sea-Land, the container shipping company founded by Malcolm McLean, the inventor of the shipping container.
Soon after, the ‘Mobile Research Laboratory’ was born, and Pratt never went back to that graduate programme – only business school later on in her career. Instead, she spent much of the late 1970s and early 1980s inside a container, throwing light on the little-known science of refrigerated transport and enabling the creation of much of the technology and best practices used in the industry today.
Life in a container
The ‘Sea-Land Mobile Research Lab’ was actually a converted 40-foot shipping container, modified by a company specialising in mobile homes to create a totally self-contained research centre equipped with living and office space.
And because it was a standard container, it could be loaded onto vessels, trucks and barges – anywhere customers’ cargo could go.
The Sea-Land team led the way on reefer back then, and there’s no question the R&D she was doing helped lay the foundation for what we know today about refrigerated transport.
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At one end of the container was the lab, equipped with a computer and a variety of technical instruments for taking and analysing food and atmosphere samples up to 150 temperature points. At the other end was the living area with two bunk beds, a microwave, refrigerator, shower and a small office space. A diesel generator, fuel and water tanks ensured continuous power and heat.
In a terminal, on a farm or in an orchard, Pratt and her partners took turns sleeping to keep an eye on the computers. Only the inside had any resemblance to a mobile home. Bulletproof glass in the door window was a precaution given the duration of stays in certain places and the expensive equipment inside.
Mouldy coffee beans
In her years in the lab, Pratt studied over 100 different commodities, frozen and fresh, testing and monitoring temperatures, mapping airflow in the container, humidity, respiration rates of fruit and vegetables, fungus growth and more.
“We worked with several customers as well, to solve specific problems. General Foods wanted to know why cocoa and coffee beans from the Dominican Republic were occasionally arriving in the US mouldy. We did some tests, tweaked the temperature and ventilation and eventually patented a new container design,” recalls Pratt.
Pratt is quick to point out that she “was not the only one doing this research back then,” though her colleagues are just as quick to praise her work.
“She has been in this business longer than most people, including everyone on our team,” says Henrik Lindhardt, Head of Reefer Research & Support in Maersk Line.
Lindhardt took out from his desk the original 1977 ‘Sea-Land Mobile Research Laboratory’ advertising brochure with a picture of Pratt in a white lab coat working in the container lab.
“The Sea-Land team led the way on reefer back then, and there’s no question the R&D she was doing helped lay the foundation for what we know today about refrigerated transport,” says Lindhardt.
According to Lindhardt, it was Pratt’s findings from her time in the lab that led to a lot of changes in reefer container design and packing methods customised for the particular ventilation, air flow and temperature needs of a variety of fresh produce.
Breakdowns, blood plasma and beyond
Today, Pratt heads Maersk Line’s refrigerated technical services team in North America, one of the world’s largest import/export region for fresh produce.
If a container malfunctions or cargo is spoiled and no one knows why, it’s Barbara and her team who receive the call to unravel the mess. They are the fixers, providing real-time support to Maersk Line operations, sales and customer service.
She calls her transition from the lab to technical services a natural progression to ‘application’ of her lab work.
“Today, I prefer solving the problems, working on the logistics and serving the bigger picture – the customers and the business,” she says.
It was Barbara’s research and development of strict standard operating procedures that enabled Maersk Line to begin accepting shipments of blood plasma. Volumes are small, but very profitable and care of the cargo is critical.
“I don’t see myself retiring. I think with global population growth, the need for a year-round food supply that is both safe and its movements transparent, will only increase,” she says.
“How can Maersk Line help customers ship all types of fresh commodities further distances and maintain quality and safety? I think that question will keep my interest for quite some time.”