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IoT logistics moves from connected fleet to connected things

The 21st century saw the inception of the internet of things. Many industries adopted IoT to improve efficiencies and meet increasing customer demands by using real-time data for prompt decision-making.

IoT began its journey on the factory shop floor with technologies like RFID helping to advance the manufacturing process. Then came consumer IoT applications, where homes started seeing a huge level of automation with lights or air conditioners operating remotely. After shop floors and homes, IoT was examined to help improve processes in the enterprise supply chain.

Initially, supply chain professionals and IoT technologists believed that by connecting goods-carrying fleet around the world, they could obtain real-time visibility of their shipments. Therefore, the first move in IoT supply chain was to develop technologies to track “vehicles.”

GPS vehicle tracking became the preferred method to gain shipment visibility, causing thousands of companies to launch with new technologies in this space. Wired to the vehicles’ batteries, GPS trackers provide data analytics about the fleets’ locations and movements.

GPS tracking analytics include location, speed, route, acceleration and driving patterns. However, you cannot obtain data on the condition of your goods — and this is a major limitation with fleet management systems.

Challenges with the ‘connected fleet’ approach

While GPS vehicle tracking works well for personal cars and car services, the “connected fleet” approach is not effective for supply chain professionals wanting to stay abreast about the holistic health of their goods, and it poses several challenges:

1. Inability to monitor LTL shipments and market vehicles
Whether the shipper is a large multinational or a small business, companies rarely ship goods using their own vehicles — especially on intercity and transnational routes.

Typically, companies use logistics service providers (3PLs) to arrange for a pickup at the origin. The 3PL then sources a vehicle on a by-trip basis to haul the goods to its destination.

This type of vehicle, known as a market vehicle, constitutes more than 80% of surface hauls around the world.

Since market vehicles seldom return to the shipment origin after delivering the consignment to the destination because they are likely sourced by another 3PL for another shipper, it’s extremely difficult to secure the visibility of goods. You will have no insight into whether the market vehicle has a GPS tracker. Even if it does, you would need to obtain the data from the truck owner which is difficult, time-consuming and often impossible.

2. Inability to track multi-modal and trans-shipped cargo
A large percent of shipments in the world travel through more than one mode of transport during transit. A shipment can move by surface, then by rail and even hop on a vessel for a journey across the ocean.

By tracking the vehicle alone, you cannot monitor your goods’ journey end to end.

3. There’s more to a shipment than its location — its health condition
If your shipment in question is perishable ice creams or pharmaceuticals, it’s imperative for them to be preserved at an acceptable temperature range. Simply knowing the truck’s, flight’s or vessel’s location and movement will not provide you with the ability to rectify a condition anomaly that could impact its quality or integrity.

The same applies to fragile shipments that are sensitive to shock or humidity.

The conditions surrounding the shipment, such as temperature, pressure, humidity and shock (its handling), are just as important as the location itself, and fleet-based tracking cannot provide you this information.

The solution: An IoT ‘connected things’ supply chain model

To achieve effective supply chain visibility beyond intel on vehicles’ whereabouts, let’s spotlight the “things” in IoT. By monitoring the things or parcels themselves, and not just tracking the fleet that are moving the goods, your supply chain can receive real-time data enabling you to make better decisions, reduce risk and increase business efficiencies.

Portable wireless monitoring device hotspots and BLE beacons working on hybrid IoT technology (a combination of GPS/GSM/BLE/Wi-Fi) when attached to packages, boxes, pallets, containers or loads track and monitor the condition of the individual packages in transit and at the warehouse.

By using such a hybrid IoT technology and portable devices, the location as well as the health of the shipment can be monitored in real time. You can implement visibility across your enterprise without relying on the fleet owners or the logistics service provider, making the model scalable and providing you with the power of integrated data across all your shipments. The collected data can be used to analyze trends such as past shipping patterns. With insights into past shipments, real-time information about the location and the condition of the shipment, predictions are more reliable and actionable.

For example, if the temperature of your consignment is rising in the summer months and it hasn’t moved for more than an hour from a location where it shouldn’t have stopped in the first place, it could indicate an issue. If real-time temperature data was not known (as in the case of fleet tracking systems), you would be unaware that your goods were in jeopardy.

The only challenge with portable device deployment to monitor things is about managing their reverse logistics. Most portable shipment monitoring devices may not be economical to dispose after use on a single trip. Therefore, before using a portable device, it’s important to ascertain if a tight reverse logistics system is in place for the retrieval of your IoT devices.

The best route is to work with an IoT provider who handles the reverse logistics and provides a completely managed plan with no device ownership or Capex.

When reviewing technologies and services, keep in mind to evaluate shipment visibility from a granularity perspective — package, pallet, load or container — and choose one that can manage the entire gamut of things.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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GPS/Fleet tracking IoT solutions include hardware, a mobile network, and data storage. These are best used to collect data to support predictive maintenance, measure fleet utilization, enhance driver safety/reduce insurance costs, and, determine vehicle or equipment location. 

Carriers and shipping companies are going a step further, utilizing IoT technology by building sensors in to trailers and shipping containers, measuring moisture levels, temperature, pressure, and automatically switching off/on when aircraft takes off and lands; in addition to providing location data.

It's encouraging the Senate is working to initiate IoT device security standards. But, in many cases, these are "dumb devices".  The mobile network the data travels across and the data itself also need security requirements defined, to give solution providers a design objective.

There are likely billions of dollars of savings to be realized when federal agencies are able to embrace IoT. The current lack of standards leaves federal agencies far behind in their ability to adopt these tools to make better decisions. 

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