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Smart sensors bring the supply chain to life

Deploying the right smart sensors in the right places can transform supply chain management and execution.

Visibility and control are high priorities for supply chain managers. Customers want their products to be on time,...

high-quality, untainted, identified and assured. And suppliers want to deliver.

To help them do that, suppliers are starting to use sensors that detect and record temperature, humidity, vibration, motion, light, pressure and altitude. As a result, technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID), GPS, mobile and sensors let us almost see, touch and smell our supply chains.

Embedding sensors into finished products allows manufacturers to offer "smart products" and create new revenue sources with enhanced features. Sensor data emanating from the product allows it to be located, used more effectively, operated autonomously and serviced remotely. It allows product developers to understand how their products perform and create more durable or specialized versions.

Sensors are often embedded in manufacturing equipment to monitor, control and report on operations. Sensor data feeding software modules can make adjustments or outright shut down operations if needed.  

Sensors in use

Safety is a big application for sensors. Sensor data can alert workers at facilities that deal with hazardous materials or chemicals of issues with the equipment or the product. Even food production facilities with ovens or large blending equipment can benefit from sensors. 

Maintaining and protecting products as they make their journey to customers is another critical concern. Thus, sensors for perishables, fragile or high-consequence products are being deployed. Sensors add additional capabilities to refrigeration equipment, for example, since temperature may not be uniform throughout a container. As power ebbs and flows and doors open and shut, the temperature varies. Changes in temperature may ruin things like biological materials or ice cream. Additionally, vibration and motion sensors are being deployed to record whether fragile products are dropped or poorly handled.

Carriers can use sensors to monitor their equipment, their drivers and the routes to understand where and how issues may arise. Did the driver turn off the engine or refrigerator to save fuel, thus spoiling the shipment? Was there damage caused when a forklift dropped a crate? Would taking another route ensure that products arrive undamaged? Knowing where and why issues occur can allow carriers to address those problems in real time or in the future.

The business side

Sensors provide companies with new types of information that many do not have today. A new generation of applications that use this information is emerging.

Sensor networks can be just for source data or full applications. For example, analytics company TransVoyant‘s geospatial event processor answers queries from GT Nexus' supply chain network. Another approach companies take is providing devices with a trace-and-track sensor network-as–a-service offering. A company like security supplier FreightWatch provides sensors along with a GPS or active RFID device to accompany one shipment. The shipper can request these devices and return them once the shipment arrives at its destination.

Applications can be built on IoT platforms with complex event processing rules engines that sit on top of all sorts of sensor and other source data. Some examples are TransVoyant, Savi Technology, Mojix and IDV Solutions. Savi and Mojix got their start in the RFID market whereas IDV started in security and also offers video and other kinds of streaming data for their applications.

These systems are important because they can correlate and find meaning, seek out events and answers to why things are happening -- and they can predict and take action. That's a lot of processes. Thus, these new players are adept at big data analytics and use big data platforms like Microsoft Azure, commercial versions of Hadoop and Google Cloud Platform.

Data integration and movement providers are entering in the big data aspect of this market. Managed file transfer players that are expert at managing very large multi-protocol data sources from a myriad of end points are also in the big data game. They boast big scale, data storage and security. An example is software company Cleo, which is part of the underlying architecture for supply chain companies like JDA Software Group, MercuryGate and SAP, all companies that handle millions of bits and bytes of data every day.

We are at the beginning of a transformative time, but this is not like other adoption eras. Many of the technology players already have huge, scalable deployments. Options for end users span from sophisticated IT departments building their own applications to acquiring a purpose-built IoT or sensor system to having the traditional supply chain providers add more of these capabilities to their portfolio. And with so many companies including sensor networks and devices with their products, users today can take advantage of the new insights on how to improve their supply chains.

Next Steps

Understand RFID trends

Learn where sensors fit in product as a service

Read about Internet of Things deployments

This was last published in June 2015

Dig Deeper on Internet of Things (IoT) in Manufacturing

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