There may be trouble ahead

The digital identification of items that can be read by machines and systems is starting to raise some fundamental questions about operational realities. One example is with the recent announcement by a major shipping line (MSC), that they plan to augment 50,000 of their dry containers with sensor technology. Now it is not a surprise that fitting track and trace technology to containers may be a good idea, but more that this is for ‘dry’ boxes rather than ‘reefers’ that must be constantly monitored. The sensors will record a range of data over and above just location, date and time. They will also monitor movement, impact, temperature, pressure etc.

They will apparently do this as part of a ‘system’ that includes communications and power delivery. At first glance, it would seem that they have had to do this to ensure a consistent operating envelope. How compatible this may be when these boxes are moved by other shipping lines or carriers, remains to be seen. It is possible that they will only be used by MSC as part of a closed loop process, but if so that may have an impact on operating economics (i.e. cost).

Another instance occurred during a conversation with a close friend of mine, who mentioned that they were having to referee between vendors of differing bar code labels attached to vital samples in the healthcare arena. My friend and I have known each other for a long time, and many years ago had addressed similar issues related to bar code implementations. We were both staggered that simple issues with this technology were still appearing. I stress, this was not a problem with bar code technology ‘per se’, but more with the organisational and systemic infrastructure.

Ti has frequently highlighted the issues around the Internet of Things (IoT) and the volumes of data likely to be generated. We have also pointed out that many existing systems operated by companies in the logistics sector were never designed to handle the output from IoT devices at any scale. But the two examples I mentioned previously illustrate a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed first. The issue of standards.

Now everyone is aware that standardisation has been hugely beneficial for the transport and logistics sector. From documentation standards to the advent of the shipping container. The acceptance and implementation of standards across the communications sector has also improved and accelerated global trade. But with regard to the IoT, this has yet to happen in any meaningful way. A recent article by the D2D advisory firm highlighted the challenges perfectly.

The authors point out that the IoT landscape actually involves multiple industries, technologies and definitions. e.g. Differing kinds of sensors used in domestic and consumer equipment vary from those required in the commercial sector. Because the logistics and supply chain management domain covers multiple industries and disciplines, the general adoption of IoT devices and technologies will be immensely challenging.

Standardisation has existed for decades for bar code technologies and as the technology has evolved, the relevant standards bodies have done a good job maintaining continuity. But this is no help when organisations choose to implement what they assume is a single ‘standard’ technology, which is then applied to a variety of incompatible situations. Specifically, two different bar code standards on the same product that can’t be processed by a system designed to handle only one of them.

The container tracking situation mentioned previously faces similar challenges. One of which is whether the operators expect that any other operator carrying the boxes must connect to their electronic monitoring system? They may already be using a competitive, but incompatible platform for track and trace which may not be able (or allowed) to read the related streams. But if the devices and related data conforms to an open standard, real benefits should result. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Learning lessons from the experiences of multiple implementations of sensor technology across a range of industries, in a variety of environments, is important. As intelligent devices, sensors and custom chips are introduced into the market, issues such as security, power consumption and longevity are all areas requiring greater collaboration and standardisation – and the attendant education.

Source: Transport Intelligence, December 4, 2018

Author: Ken Lyon


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