Connectivity revolutionizing cargo tracking, trucking

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There are more than 10 billion devices connected throughout the world, and this rapidly growing Internet-of-Things will change how product is tracked through the supply chain.

Bill Green, senior technical staff member, packaging technology with IBM Systems Group, told FTR Conference attendees Sept. 10 that tracking will go well beyond location monitoring, as sensors become more sophisticated. His company ships high-value server hardware, which can weigh up to a ton, all over the world. For IBM it’s essential to know not only where those shipments are at all time, but how they’ve been handled.

The Internet-of-Things is allowing that. In the last five years, there has been a 300% increase in connected machine-to-machine devices, while micro-electromechanical system prices have dropped by 80%.

“It’s getting cheaper to put these things in devices,” Green said.

Most tracking systems today rely on scanned data, but this doesn’t tell the shipper what happened to its product between scan points.

“Damage, when it does happen, especially with a high-end product that can cost several million dollars in one shipment, it becomes a problem,” Green said. “In a lot of cases (today), you don’t have the information that says how is the product doing? Is it okay? Is it too hot? Too cold? Has it tipped over? Was it dropped?”

In the past, Green said IBM used unconnected sensors. They would record shock and vibration information, but data had to be manually downloaded.

“It was all being done after the fact, and not in real-time,” Green said. “If you did have damage, you couldn’t pinpoint where it was. You could guess, but wouldn’t know.”

Today, real-time monitoring has become feasible, thanks to infrastructure that supports mass data transfer. One huge advantage? “I can mitigate a lot of these problems before the shipment arrives at the customer,” Green said. “If a product is damaged, but the crate looks okay and they open it up and there’s $1 million in damage, they are upset. If we can tell something is wrong, inspect it, if there’s a problem, fix it, then it doesn’t have to be a burden on the client.”

Next to come is real-time supply chain mapping, according to Green, where shippers can map out a supply chain from start to finish. They can map a cold chain, for instance, and determine in advance the precise cooling temperatures that will be required. Shippers will be able to monitor barometric pressure, temperature, position, vibration, shock, tilt, movement, and tampering during transit.

Green is spearheading IBM’s track-and-trace project, which tracks shipments through GPS devices and provides real-time notifications verbally through IBM’s Watson. The technology examines routes, including weather, and even geopolitical events, to determine routing.

“With the Hong Kong protests this weekend, would you want to ship through Hong Kong to get into China or find an alternative route?” Green reasoned.

It gives IBM the ability to avoid problems, or resolve them more quickly when they do arise. It can pinpoint where incidents occurred, rather than speculate, holding carriers more accountable. If improper handling is noticed, training can be offered to prevent it.

“It doesn’t take days to figure out where things are, it takes minutes, and we can exactly pinpoint where something is and fix it before it gets to the customer,” Green said.


Connected trucks

Trucks, too, are part of the Internet-of-Things. Walter Rentzsch, principal engineer with Roland Berger, said in the trucking industry the focus has shifted from green, efficient and safe trucks, to big data and connectivity. Those trends pave the way toward self-driving trucks, Rentzsch said.

He anticipates Level 4 autonomous trucks to become a reality by about 2025, or, depending on legislation, a few years afterwards. Rentzsch noted it costs about US$1.70 per mile to operate a Class 8 linehaul truck, with the largest part of that being the driver (73 cents), fuel (37 cents), equipment (26 cents) and maintenance (17 cents). Each of those costs can be reduced through connectivity and automation, Rentzsch said.

Benefits include improved efficiency and cost savings, improved safety and security, and reduced downtime. More timely deliveries will also benefit the end customers, he added.

“The market has moved from basic telematics to fleet management solutions today, and will develop towards a fully connected supply chain,” Rentzsch predicted.

He estimated the value of connectivity and automation to be US$18-$36 billion per year, if it can provide a 5-10% cost savings to the industry.

“It’s an oversimplified calculation but it shows the huge potential behind it,” Rentzsch said.



James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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