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01/27/2011

ILC: Using Sensors, GPS and Cellular Networks to Improve Your Supply Chain

The lofty promise of RFID technology was that it would revolutionize global supply chains by letting retailers, shippers and other logistics players keep constant tabs on the whereabouts of their products – everything from TVs to clothes to lowly razor blades. That promise hasn’t panned out, for a number of reasons.

But one of RFID’s biggest drawbacks is now being addressed by a new, more sophisticated technology. It’s designed for tracking high-value goods – think pharmaceuticals, art, pricey electronics and even food – and adds value by monitoring the goods’ condition in transit, not just their location.

The new technology is called ILC, which is short for identification, location and condition. While RFID identifies a shipment and tracks its location as it moves past a special reader (perhaps one installed at a seaport, or a warehouse), the technology can’t tell you anything about the shipment’s actual condition. That’s a big problem. It means you’ll discern the condition of your shipment only when it’s packed at origin and unpacked at its final destination. If damage or theft occurs at any point along the way, your first indication that anything is wrong will come only at the end of the journey, when you – or, worse, your customer – opens the package to an unpleasant surprise.

Enter ILC, a cutting-edge technology that is the result of merging GPS, cellular-location and advanced-sensor capabilities. ILC makes it easier to track shipments and transmit information about them; it also makes it easier to pinpoint potential problems in transit. Specialized sensors embedded in ILC devices can include those detecting light, to track opening or tampering; temperature, relevant to food and drug shipments; and tilt/shock. ILC devices are portable, re-useable and configurable, meaning alert parameters can be set for each sensor. One or more individuals can receive the “exception notification alerts” when sensor readings are off.

These alerts are sent over the world’s widely available cellular networks in real time. That means shippers can be notified of changes in the condition of their shipments while they’re in transit, not just when goods are passing through a reader at a port or other facility. Each alert is time-stamped, providing a chain of custody for carrier management, performance grading and potential claims resolution. Some companies are working on ILC-type devices now. Many others are trying to move beyond RFID to offer asset-tracking products that incorporate GPS technologies, but not necessarily sensors, or more than one type of sensor, such as temperature. But true, comprehensive ILC devices have the advantage of being stand-alone solutions that can provide constant shipment surveillance without relying on other parties in the supply chain. Another big plus is that the devices don’t require process changes or on-the-ground investment in expensive readers or scanners. That more than compensates for their higher cost compared with RFID tags.

There are plenty of potential use cases for ILC devices. The temperature sensor is an excellent solution for tracking pharmaceuticals, lab animals, certain manufacturing components, artwork and food. Unlike a static temperature device, an ILC can graphically illustrate the temperatures to which a shipment’s contents are subjected throughout a journey. This can be critical if a shipment’s temperature fluctuates in transit, but still arrives at its destination within accepted parameters. In that case, spoilage or degradation may go undetected. In addition, the alert time stamp will pinpoint where the event occurred and who was in possession of the shipment when it happened.

Light sensors provide information about tampering or the unauthorized opening of a box, carton or container. This is particularly important for high-value or proprietary items moving from point to point. A light alert will allow for rapid response and chain-of-custody documentation. One example would be a high-end computer server stocked with confidential data that is being moved from one data center to another. If the security of that server is compromised, the impact could be enormous and result in huge financial or even regulatory liability for the customer.

The importance of in-transit data can’t be overstated, since it’s extremely valuable to both shippers and other parties. For shippers, such information provides a way to monitor not only the security and integrity of shipments, but also transportation companies’ service performance. Using a common geo-fence enabled by a GPS system, for example, a shipper can be notified when an order is approaching its destination, and this can have an impact on resource scheduling and planning. A shipper is no longer dependent on the tracking system of its carrier of choice.

For a freight forwarder who moves his customers’ shipments in an open-loop system, an ILC device allows for shipment management and proactive response to delays and other service interruptions. Consider a shipment carrying an ILC device that is sitting at an origin airport well after its scheduled departure time. This, obviously, indicates a potential service failure. A COB (confirmation on board) may take hours to reach the forwarder. However, an ILC will send an earlier warning: data indicating that the shipment’s intended aircraft has departed without it. (The ILC device would turn off once it got onboard the plane, so if it was still sending signals after the plane’s scheduled departure, there would be no doubt it didn’t make the flight.) The device also would be reactivated upon landing at the destination airport, immediately notifying shippers of its whereabouts. This level of near real-time data is a vast improvement over the current information and update flows exchanged between airlines and forwarders.

ILC devices’ use of GPS technology and backup cellular, location-based systems is also a plus. GPS is extremely accurate, provided signals aren’t blocked by specific building structures, metal containers and the like. While cellular-location systems aren’t as accurate as GPS, they still provide location data within 10 to a couple of hundred meters. And widely available cellular networks – not static readers – transmit the sensor data generated by ILC devices. Devices can be configured to report sensor status at regular intervals, or send notifications the moment changes are recorded. This is a key feature for customizing the devices around anticipated transit times, whether they involve air, ground, ocean or rail journeys. It also allows shippers to set battery-consumption rates to correspond to anticipated travel times. Obviously, cellular-signal strengths vary by location. But as technology improves and cell networks grow, LBS accuracy will also improve.

Currently, there are a number of GPS/cellular location devices on the market.  However, incorporating the third feature, condition sensors, is a new and highly important supply-chain innovation. Companies shipping high-value or environmentally sensitive items should explore this new solution. Shipping companies should also look at ILC devices as a way to bring value to their customers and their internal operations, and also to develop new revenue streams. Cell phones keep people connected. An ILC device keeps you and your supply chain better connected and greatly reduces surprises and headaches associated with shipping goods and products around the world.

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