How telematics keeps cargo management on track

 Construction site theft and piracy on the high seas are well known problems, but containers that simply get lost among the stacks at ports are another common way companies take a hit on their profitability.

“Theft and loss go hand in hand,” says Newth Morris, president of Telogis GeoBase Group, which provides a platform for development of the geospatial software used in asset tracking and mapping. In fact, loss is driving many of the improvements in asset tracking and cargo management.

Much of Telogis GeoBase Group’s business centers on tracking telematics for heavy equipment at remote job sites, company-owned containers, and cargo coming through ports.

In these scenarios, misplacing a container or crane is just as likely as having one stolen. Technology can help in both cases.

Though some prices are coming down, tracking technologies still aren’t cheap. As a result, they are not likely to be implemented for the sake of security alone.

“It’s all about turning the lights on in the supply chain,” says Morris. “It’s nice to have a [tracking] device connected, but it needs to work in business processes in a number of different ways.”

Dominique Bonte,group director for Telematics and Navigation with ABI Research,agrees, noting that security wouldn’t top his list of functions for fleet and asset management.

Improved efficiency in terms of routing and mileage comes to mind first, along with monitoring driver behavior and keeping tabs on maintenance and diagnostics.

Tracking and monitoring

Using a tracking system to keep up with powered assets like cranes and construction equipment not only keeps them from going missing, it also allows managers to monitor how the machine is running.

Information on engine hours and performance can streamline maintenance scheduling as well as making it clear when the vehicle should be pulled from the fleet.

Those opting for improved tracking systems and smarter containers don’t have to choose among these benefits.

These rewards and more are all part of the package when location-tracking devices are installed.

Morris describes an asset tracking system’s basic function as: “It’s gone. Can I find it on the map?”

This sort of management usually involves cellular- or satellite-based (for ocean transit) GPS trackers to pinpoint the location of goods and vehicles en route and/or RFID tags attached to containers and read by equipment when the ship reaches port.

These technologies have been available for some time, but improved battery power is making them more viable as is the fact that the costs for system hardware and wireless communication have dropped.

The idea now is to take these systems beyond this basic function. So the target for innovation and improvement is the back-end system.

As the computers managing the data from tracking devices grow smarter, they can automate their alerts rather than waiting for a manual search.

If the system knows a container is due to be onsite at a certain time, if it doesn’t arrive, it can report this. “It responds on an exception basis, not just user-initiated inquiries,” Morris explains. And this “magnifies many times” the system’s value.

There’s still room for improvement in the way vehicles and cargo are tracked on the front end as well, suggests Bonte.

Legacy technologies, including optical character recognition and RTLS local location tracking, are still in use.

Although RFID container tags are a big help in locating the up to 10 percent of containers that may get lost at the shipyard, if there’s a train or a truck involved in a container’s continued journey, it slips out of sight once it leaves the port.

Although GPS trackers are expensive—maybe $1,000 to $1,500 instead of $50 for an RFID tag—they’re perhaps worth it for shipments of high-value goods and are therefore gaining traction in the market, Bonte notes.

Smarter containers

Another area of improvement is the shipping containers themselves—or at least the sensors they include.

A smart container “has some idea about what it’s supposed to be doing,” explains Morris. This means sensors planted inside the container or integrated into an electronic seal can detect temperature changes, vibrations and movement, or light (indicating the container has been opened).

This information is ready when the container arrives at its destination, which helps the recipient confirm the status of the goods inside.

Prior to that, it can be used by those planning the load to understand the best environment for the container in transit.

This can affect how containers are stacked and the order they’re loaded and unloaded, which can in turn reduce costs and increase efficiency.

Achieving this sort of continuous tracking via both front-end and back-end improvements means companies don’t have to rely on RFID readers at the port to receive information about their shipment; not all budget-strapped ports have reading technology anyway.

As soon as the ship arrives, or even when it’s in range but still at sea, they can wirelessly access the sensor and tracker data and get a jump on the next phase of the journey.

Getting the goods

However, one challenge to implementing this smart container technology is the fact that most companies don’t own their own containers, notes Bonte.

Instead they’re interchanged and used by multiple parties, so no one wants to invest in the upgrades needed to make them smarter.

But he also notes growth in the goods tracking industry, where the containers are bypassed and GPS or cellular trackers and RFID tags are attached directly to the pallets or packaging material that contains the goods themselves.

Because of the nature of the shipping industry, and particularly in light of the current focus on the bottom line, these advances are phasing in over time, says Morris. Smarter containers are introduced when old ones wear out, rather than retrofitting current equipment.

Much of the remaining room for improvement is behind the scenes. “The base technologies in terms of connectivity are there, but value is being able to interact [with the data] on the back end,” Morris says.

Improved systems will get data off the containers and onto servers where it can be put into the workflow to yield better security as well as more efficient operations from supply chain start to finish.

Jessica Royer Ocken is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on asset tracking and cargo management, see Telematics and M2M: New business models and Telematics in Brazil: Ensuring security for cars and cargo.

For more all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s other key players at TK.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Reportand Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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