The latest trends and innovations in unit load devices

Unit load devices come in varying shapes and sizes, but they are also becoming increasingly sophisticated to deal with special requirements, as Bernie Baldwin reports

[This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Airline Cargo Management]

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If the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 are the workhorses of passenger air transport, then unit load devices (ULDs) play a similar role in cargo transportation. In fact, such is their ubiquity that ULDs can be seen at even more airports than those aircraft.

As with any equipment of this nature, enhancements or new products are constantly being developed and, although the past two years have been tough in the airline industry, there have still been advances in ULD technology, as noted by Frank Mühlenkamp, director of global operations for Jettainer, which manages more than 100,000 ULDs in 500 locations worldwide for its customers.

“Jettainer maintains close partnerships with various manufacturers and provides its expertise as an operational ULD business,” he comments. “Comprehensive data – for example from Jettainer’s fleet of digital twins – and continuous process analysis provide further input for the enhancement of ULDs. Especially when it comes to sustainability in air transport, ULDs can make an important contribution.”

Jettainer’s cool containers are available either as a passive or active solution

“Efforts are being made to develop even lighter ULDs so that kerosene and CO² can be saved. The materials play an important role here. For example, recycled carbon fibres are being used for lightweight containers and contribute to sustainability themselves by coming closer to a circular economy. Robustness is another important asset for ULDs – finding the best combination of lightweight and durability is a primary focus. The more robust a ULD is, the less damage occurs and the fewer repairs are needed,” Mühlenkamp elaborates.

“We thus optimise the lifetime of our customers’ equipment and contribute to cost efficiency and sustainability, which is an ongoing process,” he adds. “Furthermore, the growth in e-commerce and the related increase in the number of lithium batteries in cargo and mail consignments requires solutions and standards in terms of fire protection, fireproof containers or fireproof covers. We collaborate closely with our customers and ULD suppliers, but also with industry associations, to guarantee the highest safety and quality standards and ensure the best service provision.

“To cope with increasing e-commerce, the aviation industry is increasingly relying on converted passenger aircraft. Lufthansa Cargo, for example, has converted two medium-haul A321s for use in Europe, which also require new main deck ULDs. For this purpose, the aircraft will receive large cargo doors to enable the transport of containers on the main deck as well as cargo pallets,” he adds.

According to Envirotainer’s head of global key accounts – airlines, Donald Harrison, the company is the world leading supplier of active container ULDs for the transport of high value pharmaceuticals. It too is always looking to enhance its products.

Envirotainer is able to leverage cutting edge technology and capabilities to move patient-critical medicines to those in need

“Envirotainer continually assesses market needs to ensure we provide the best possible premium services,” Harrison says. “With the introduction of the ‘Releye Platform’ of containers, Envirotainer leverages cutting edge technology and capabilities to move patient-critical medicines to those in need.

“The Releye Platform,” he adds, “focuses on five key features ‘to deliver RELiability with a constant EYE on customers’ products.” The five features are control, monitoring, autonomy, value and sustainability.

Rather than introducing new products recently, ULD provider AEROTUF has been “re-purposing the ULD”, according to customer experience director Lucas Peterson. “What we have seen is more efficient aircraft starting to be delivered, and we believe that ULDs need to be more efficient too so that they fulfil not just a singular purpose, but can enhance revenue and refine/improve operations.

“All airlines have a variety of aircraft, the most efficient of which have been used for cargo. The more efficient the aircraft’s fuel consumption, the more cargo movements they have done through Covid,” Peterson notes. “Efficiency has been key when deploying aircraft, but we have not seen a drive towards more efficient ULDs, and we’d like to support the market in that shift – lowering cost and maximising revenue per kilo on our ‘AeroTHERM’ ULD that helps protect perishable products from extremes of temperature – getting more revenue from the same space. 

“Airlines look at the total cost of operation (TCO) for their aircraft; the next logical step would be to look at the TCO on a ULD, where daily savings can be realised, and how they can reduce labour costs. This means no buying, preparing or disposing of plastic-based ancillaries such as thermal blankets and coolants, and reduction on the labour to prepare them and send them to landfill.”

AEROTUF believes ULDs need to be more efficient to enhance revenue and improve operations

Another major development in the market is Sonoco ThermoSafe’s launch of the ‘Pegasus’ ULD, for shipping high value pharmaceutical products, Peterson reports. “The Pegasus is built using AeroTHERM technology as a chassis. The ULD is an ideal solution for protecting perishables, but the technology used in the Pegasus allows the products inside to be strictly temperature controlled. The important difference between protection and control cannot be stated enough,” he emphasises.

Marc Groenewegen, CCO and managing director MRO solutions at Unilode Aviation Solutions, notes “that while many airlines used their passenger aircraft as ‘preighters’, the industry didn’t see any Covid-related innovations or modifications to standard ULDs. 

“On the other hand, there have been enhancements to special ULDs such as fire-resistant containers (FRCs) and temperature-controlled containers but this is a niche market. In general, the strongest demand we are experiencing right now is for 16ft and 20ft heavy-duty pallets,” he reports.

As noted, ULDs can be seen on the tarmac at airports almost everywhere, but busy airport ramps are notorious for collisions. Providers and managers of ULDs thus need programmes in place to ensure that if a ULD is damaged, it can be repaired quickly or replaced.

“It is well known that the most frequent cause of ULD damage is mishandling on the tarmac or in the warehouse and such incidents usually occur between and during aircraft loading and unloading operations,” Groenewegen remarks. “A lack of airworthy ULDs can cause delays and airlines may need to leave revenue-generating cargo behind. That’s why it is so important to prevent damage in the first place.

“That can be achieved through continuous training of the ULD handling staff and the implementation of correct practices. Unilode offers and provides training to ground handlers to ensure best practices in terms of damage prevention and recognition. With our global MRO network and data analysis capabilities, further enhanced through our digital solutions, Unilode can help identify the pain points globally, based on facts and data, and act on this with all stakeholders,” he adds.

“Damage will always be a fact in the operational environment, but if repair is done quickly and locally, airlines can save time and money and also do something good for the environment as unnecessary fuel burn and CO² emissions will be avoided. Unilode operates ULD repair centres at the busiest airport hubs around the world to provide local repairs to its ULD management and MRO customers,” Groenewegen continues. “This global network helps avoid costly air or land transportation of damaged equipment and enhances the availability of ULDs which can be a scarce resource during peak periods such as those we are currently experiencing. 

“We offer various ULD repair programmes to airlines, integrators and manufacturers, and tailor our service to their needs in terms of frequency, volume and locations. All Unilode repair centres are certified by the FAA and/or EASA and local aviation authorities given that ULDs are considered aircraft parts, and as such, safety and compliance are of the utmost importance.”

Jettainer’s Mühlenkamp is equally concerned about ramp ‘dings’. “Every year, the improper handling of ULDs causes avoidable additional costs of millions of euros. Jettainer is therefore committed to the ULD Care Code of Conduct to promote a highly conscious use of ULDs,” he says.

“Putting huge emphasis on the proper handling of ULDs – as well as training and qualifying the staff adequately – is the key factor in preventing damage. We co-operate with Airport College International in this respect. In this way, it is possible to avoid damage in the first place, save repair costs and keep the assets in service.”

Jettainer has implemented the use of damage limitation cards

Another approach that Jettainer has implemented is the use of damage limitation cards, which are available to airline customers, handling agents and are visible on the containers themselves. “They help the ground handling staff to identify and judge the extent of the damage. Quite often the ULD is still airworthy, despite minor damage, and you can avoid an unnecessary repair or time-consuming transport to a repair station to evaluate the damage. On the other hand, the system also ensures that non-airworthy ULDs are taken out of operation immediately to avoid any risk,” Mühlenkamp explains. 

Envirotainer works closely with airlines, ground handlers, freight forwarders, trucking companies and other related entities to ensure that training, facilities, equipment and procedures are adequate to minimise ULD damage. “Our award winning ‘Qualified Envirotainer Provider’ (QEP) accreditation and free online Envirotainer Academy allow those handling Envirotainer containers to train and develop procedures for their employees to safely handle our products quickly and efficiently,” Harrison says.

ULDs often need special temperature/environment control, be it for something to be kept very cold (such as vaccines), or something to be kept warm or moist or dry. Envirotainer manufactures and leases specialised ‘Active’ containers, says Harrison in explaining how his company deals with such requirements. “[These] are designed to maintain specified internal temperatures regardless of ambient temperature extremes. All our containers have this capability and with the introduction of the Releye Platform we’ve taken that capability to the next level,” he comments.

Groenewegen believes the pandemic has increased the need for temperature-controlled equipment and cold chain solutions. “We have a long-term relationship with Envirotainer that includes the repair, handling and logistics of its Active temperature-controlled containers, and we have increased our MRO capacity at key locations to meet the worldwide demand for the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine,” he says, explaining how Unilode handles requests for special ULDs. “We have signed agreements with other cool chain and pharma logistics players as well, such as Sonoco ThermoSafe and other manufacturers. 

“When it comes to temperature and humidity control, ULDs equipped with a Bluetooth tag use sensors to send notifications to the user in case of changes beyond the defined range. At present, Unilode has more than 80,000 digitised ULDs in its fleet and aims to equip the entire fleet of 145,000 ULDs with Bluetooth tags. The digital solutions are also offered to airlines with insourced ULD management so that they can use the data, such as geo-location, temperature, humidity, light and shock.”

Jettainer’s Mühlenkamp points out that special temperature controlled containers are available either as a passive solution – for example with cold packs or with dry ice – or as an active solution with electrical cooling systems. 

“Securing supply and managing containers for temperature-sensitive goods is an extremely complex mission that requires absolutely accurate and attentive management. This includes on-time ordering and positioning, as well as constant traceability and monitoring throughout the entire process chain in order to be ready for an immediate response to all eventualities. There is no margin for error when highly valuable and sensitive goods are involved,” Mühlenkamp stresses.

“As a ULD expert – including when it comes to cool ULDs – Jettainer has developed its ‘cool&fly’ service, comprising full cool ULD order management, steering and positioning along with monitoring as well as after-service management. Jettainer’s dedicated temperature control competence centre in Abu Dhabi offers customers a single point of contact to ensure the smooth operation of the entire cool ULD journey.”

For AEROTUF’s Peterson, appreciating the difference between protection and control is vital. The right product needs to be used for the right application, which means knowing what the product needs. Working with experts in the market helps.

“Sonoco ThermoSafe partnered with us on the development of the Pegasus ULD,” he says. “We developed patented, proprietary technology to provide a level of insulation in the containers and manufacture them to an incredibly high standard. Sonoco ThermoSafe brought its years of expertise to enhance each unit to a level where product temperatures inside the unit can be tightly controlled for up to 144 hours in extreme heat conditions. 

“Thus the AeroTHERM does an outstanding job of protecting perishables, and its cousin, the Pegasus ULD, provides the control, which offers a unique position as being a container of choice for companies shipping high value pharmaceutical products globally.”

ULDs have clearly become much more than sturdy containers and, on the basis of evidence from these market leaders, will become more specialised in the future. 

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