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Air Canada's cargo IoT initiative takes flight

The Internet of Things can land intrepid organizations in some top-flight destinations, but an IoT initiative at a company such as Air Canada can take many years of planning to take wing.

At the Connected Things 2016 event Tuesday in Cambridge, Mass., a panel outlined an IoT initiative that tags Air Canada Cargo’s shipments with RFID-enabled sensors. Experts on the panel, held by the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, said the deployment integrated temperature and humidity sensors within cargo shipments. This not only improved customer service and decreased losses, but also helped ensure ongoing compliance as regulations change.

Barb Johnston, Air Canada Cargo’s manager of operational programs, said the project took nearly eight years to complete, building the business case over time with a series of steps: mapping manual processes,  overlaying them with appropriate electronic messages, and then conducting a pilot program on flights between Frankfurt and Montreal.

“We did have to ask for a little bit of a leap of faith because of this ground-breaking technology,” Johnston said. However, Johnston says Air Canada Cargo is confident its investment will pay off in improved customer experience, reduced cargo loss and employee efficiency.

According to Johnston, Air Canada Cargo is expected to grow 50% over the next two years. Thanks to its IoT initiative, the company has been able to automate certain manual processes, such as handwriting eight-digit codes for each piece of cargo shipped, enabling the company to improve operational efficiency and more effectively use its staff.

Tagging cargo: A turbulent task

A “glass pipeline” is critical to a successful IoT initiative, Tom Zurick, director at Unisys Corporation, said. However, achieving this comes with many challenges, such as accommodating labeling between multiple providers, keeping up with regulatory guidelines, creating too much data at the piece level, and the mere fact that RFID tracking is not available everywhere.

How can that last problem be solved? “We’ve designed a solution with a high amount of flexibility,” Zurick said; flexibility that comes in terms of labeling at different points in the supply chain, adding barcodes to RFID labels for locations lacking RFID scanning capabilities, and removing clutter by consolidating piece IDs.

The benefits far outweigh the challenges, Zurick said. There’s security and safety in knowing where every piece is, service that gives tracking capabilities to customers who want visibility, and revenue improvement through charging appropriate cargo costs.

RFID tagging

Mike Nicometo, CEO of CargoAware LLC, offered a “quick peek at what’s under the hood” of RFID tags. By replacing manual codes and barcodes with a label containing an embedded RFID card, he said, Air Canada and other cargo companies give digital identities to physical things.

The key, Nicometo said, is using a variety of technologies to collect data from the cargo pieces. For example, real-time data can be captured at the “edge of the enterprise” not only using smartphones, tablets and computers, but also with RFID antennas. Air Canada Cargo’s RFID tags are read at three-second intervals. A specialized dashboard tracks cargo every step of the way from warehouse, to flight, to delivery.

Smooth sailing requires proper planning

Eric Wood, vice president of product management at RR Donnelley, reiterated the importance of the ends justifying the means — and this takes patience and preparation.

“All the ‘things’ are not the same,” Wood said. “You need to know different stuff about them: the information you want to gather from them, the insight you need to drive your business, the income drivers … they’re all going to be different for those things.

“Go out and do some research and figure out what you’re trying to solve,” Wood said. Blindly adopting technology because it is “cool” will undoubtedly end in disaster.

“This is how you’re going to get to the future of IoT,” he continued. “It’s getting the information you need that gets you the insight you have to have in order to run your business that’s going to drive the income that’s ultimately going to justify your expenditures.”

Moderator David Eagleson agreed. “Hopefully you’re getting a sense of how complex (IoT deployments) can be, but that the value side is there,” Eagleson said. “Even though there’s money to be spent — and time and effort — there’s truly value to be had.”

Air Canada Cargo certainly is reaping the rewards; Johnston said thanks to the successes seen, the company is deploying its IoT initiative across 92% of its market over the next two to three years.