Handle with care: How the IoT enables monitoring of sensitive assets throughout the supply chain (Reality Check)
Over the past decade, the Internet of Things (IoT) has transformed logistics, enabling shippers to track the location of assets as they move through the supply chain — in real-time, if necessary. However, although enterprises have become savvy at using the IoT to track the location of assets, until recently, they have not been widely used to monitor the condition of food, seeds, medicine and other assets that are sensitive to environmental changes while they are in transit. This inability to monitor for shocks, changes in temperature or light and other conditions can lead to significant damage to sensitive assets. This damage can, in turn, have a ripple effect, with delays in shipping and product delivery; higher costs for suppliers, manufacturers and consumers; and even (in the case of medicine) negative health consequences. For example, a shipment of seeds damaged by excessive heat can delay the planting of crops, resulting in a smaller harvest. A shipment of vegetables that freezes or spoils can lead to shortages in stores, lowering sales and reducing customer satisfaction. And a shipment of vaccines or other medical treatments damaged by exposure to damaging temperatures or direct sunlight could lead to more people getting sick during a disease outbreak.
Until recently, high costs and technological hurdles hindered the development of IoT applications able to monitor in real time the condition of assets as they moved through supply chains. However, recent innovations – Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) networking technologies, IoT data orchestration solutions, and open source hardware and software platforms — are enabling enterprises to break through the technological and economic barriers that slowed the deployment of IoT applications able to monitor asset conditions while they are in transit.
LPWA – LPWA networking technologies, such as LTE-M and NB-IoT, feature significant cost, power consumption and coverage advantages over other cellular data technologies. By using these technologies, enterprises can lower the cost of asset monitoring IoT devices, making it less expensive for enterprises to deploy devices with sensors for temperature, light, and shock. Also, LPWA technologies reduce the amount of power needed by these devices to transmit data on asset conditions, increasing these devices’ lifespans. LPWA technologies also deliver strong coverage in rural areas, underground spaces, and buildings, helping ensure that critical updates on an asset’s condition are communicated no matter where the asset is currently located. By reducing the cost of asset monitoring devices, increasing their lifespan, and enabling them to communicate asset conditions from areas where other wireless networking technologies cannot reach, LPWA technologies improve both the economics and capabilities of IoT asset monitoring applications.
Data Orchestration – Along with LPWA, new data orchestration software solutions also enable the development of more cost-effective and functional asset monitoring IoT applications. Data orchestration solutions allow enterprises to dynamically balance processing at the edge in the device with processing in the cloud: For example, by using edge processing to filter the data transmitted by the device, only data indicating a potential problem with the asset is communicated, preserving precious battery power. Data orchestration solutions can also be used to update and change an asset monitoring device’s capabilities – so the temperatures at which an asset monitoring device sends an alert can be adjusted, a light or shock sensor can be activated, and other asset monitoring application “rules” and functionality can be changed. This increases IoT asset monitoring devices’ flexibility, enabling enterprises to use the same device to monitor various types of assets. Data orchestration platforms also provide enterprises with the ability to use a single application to monitor a number of different environmental conditions, rather than deploy several siloed applications and devices for each one. Also, data orchestration solutions allow enterprises to manage all their devices from a single management console, simplifying security updates and other administrative tasks.
Open Platforms – The increasing development of open software and hardware platforms for the IoT, such as the Legato® open source embedded software platform and MangOH™ open source hardware platform, eliminate the need to rely on expensive proprietary technologies that can quickly become obsolete while providing more application flexibility and longevity. In addition, by delivering up to 90 percent of a prototype application’s hardware and software out-of-the-box, enterprises do not have to “reinvent the wheel”, allowing them to focus more time and resources on enhancing the functionality of their asset monitoring application, while also speeding time to market.
LPWA, data orchestration, open software and hardware platforms and other innovative technologies like these enable enterprises to build IoT applications that move a step beyond just asset location tracking, to monitoring changes to assets’ temperature, light and shock conditions. With these applications, enterprises can know where there their assets are in the supply chain, but also know in what condition these assets are in as they are being transported – allowing them to take corrective action to avoid or minimize the impact to medicine, food, seeds and other sensitive assets.
“Handle with Care” is no longer just a phrase to write on a package, in the hope, it will ensure that the package gets to its destination without being damaged. It is now a new capability enabled by the IoT that further enhances supply chain efficiency and economics, helping ensure that the food we eat, the seeds we plant and the medicine we use arrives in the same condition it was when shipped.