Supply chain monitoring and new technologies are developing rapidly. How will supply chains be monitored and overseen in the future?

By Mikkel Leth Olsen and Morten Wagner

Technological developments can change the ways in which supply chains are monitored and overseen — thereby avoiding wastage and delays, but also creating entirely new value propositions. In this article, we summarise some of the technological opportunities and considerations that the IoT world can lend to new supply chain initiatives.

Intelligent tracking with sensors

Until recently, the development of new technologies occurred parallel to developments in supply chain monitoring and logistics. Today, however, we see these two areas converging more and more. In particular, component prices and new forms of telecommunication are two key parameters leading the prices of internet and sensor networking technologies to drop, thus increasing the opportunities available for monitoring and tracking supply chains.

Whereas previously, most monitoring and identification was based on barcodes and (perhaps) RFID technologies, we can today add in more sensor data, and we can send data farther and farther away. It could be said that technologies in this area are moving away from a data-heavy paradigm with centralised storage and very "thin" clients in products and packaging, and towards more intelligent tags and trackers that can gather data, interpret it, and distribute data in a more decentralised manner.

This makes it possible to work with much more vast amounts of data, increasing our knowledge of how our supply chains work and helping us to optimise them decisively — but it also serves as a foundation for brand new business models and the development of new service concepts.

Considerations regarding monitoring technologies

In a series of innovation projects, together with a number of large Danish businesses, FORCE Technology has researched advanced supply chain monitoring to identify new opportunities and challenges. 

Below, we present a series of considerations that may be worth taking into account, based on our experience with the emerging convergence of IoT and supply chains. These considerations can be taken independently of vendors and existing solutions, and they are particularly important for novices and new businesses in the area as they embark on the development of new solutions for supply chain monitoring. We recommend subsequently researching whether a match already exists on the market, or whether it would make sense to look for a tailor-made solution.

Getting off to a good start

One of the first things you should do before starting to develop a new solution from scratch is to thoroughly research and consider why that is the best route to take. In our experience, these two steps provide a good starting point:

1) Look inwards. Begin by looking inwards to discover what it is you want to know and what kind of data you need in order to acquire that knowledge. Here, there should be some idea as to what this new knowledge could contribute to, and by extension, how much that knowledge is worth to the business. This can offer a clue about how much it ought to cost to develop and maintain the knowledge used as input for discovering and choosing from among possible technologies to use.

2) Look outwards. Next, it's a good idea to take some time to investigate what already exists on the market. For example off-the-shelf solutions that can be implemented more or less as they are, as well as how far technological developments are with respect to the potential development of a new solution.

Developing new IoT solutions

If, for one reason or another, all signs point to developing a new solution, then there is a new set of considerations for you to take into account. The focus here is on how IoT technologies can contribute with new kinds of data that are valuable for developing an existing business or creating opportunities for new business models.

Choose the right kind of IoT device

There are several ways to structure and design new technologies. Some of the most common categories are:

  • Very long battery lifetimes, even up to 10 years.
  • Single-use items. Examples in this category feature integrated batteries and simple sensors.
  • With or without extra sensors, such as temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure sensors.
  • Whether it should be possible to upload data to the internet directly from the device (e.g., via mobile networks), send data over BLE to hubs at strategic points, or read data from the devices at an endpoint.

What kind of IoT communication to used?

A central part of having a device that gathers data is the ability to retrieve that data for the purpose of analysing and learning from the gathered data. Therefore, the central question is: what kind of communication should the device use?

  • Should it use an RFID label read at the beginning and end?
  • Is continuous communication necessary?
  • Will there be power available, or is a battery needed to supply power?

Some of the possibilities for communicating the gathered data include:

  • Wi-Fi, LoRa, Sigfox: Like mobile networks, but optimised for IoT
  • Mobile networks: Like ordinary mobile phones
  • Bluetooth/BLE: Typically used for communicating with a hub that uploads data to the internet
  • NB-IoT: Uses mobile networks, but optimised for IoT
  • ZigBee: Typically used for communicating with a hub that uploads data to the internet
  • RFID, NFC or a wired connection

How large should the IoT device be?

Another important aspect to consider is limitations on the size of the device. Rarely are there no limitations at all on how large a new device can be. For this reason, size and price are often the two deciding factors in terms of the possibilities that exist (apart from technological developments, of course). Some of our most frequently used considerations related to device sizes include these:

  • Is there an object that needs to be attached to something else?
  • Should this be a fixed integration, or should it be possible to connect numerous devices?
  • Should this be a label or a larger device?
  • How will location be tracked?

If you wish to determine the device's physical location, there are many ways to handle this. Typically, GPS is used, though it is relatively expensive in terms of both unit prices and power consumption. Alternatively, the following tracking technologies may be of use:

  • RFID
  • Bluetooth/BLE
  • Wi-Fi
  • Mobile networks
  • Sigfox/LoRa

Each one has its own capabilities and limitations that must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Another option is to combine several types of tracking, such as using GPS- and RFID-equipped hubs with cheap, RFID-only tags. The location of an individual tag is determined by a hub when it makes contact with the tag.

The most common GPS tracking strategies are:

• Constant logging
• Tracking on call
• Timed tracking

Which parameters should sensors capture?

Aside from location, there is a sea of possibilities when it comes to registering and collecting data on various parameters. Naturally, the sensors you consider integrating should reflect the data you need and the potential value of this data. 

The list of parameters that sensors can register is lengthy. Some of the most common parameters are:

  • Temperature
  • Ambient humidity
  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Light level
  • Sound level
  • Acceleration/movement
  • Air quality

There are various ways to meet your sensing needs depending on how you combine these sensors, but simultaneously, you should consider power consumption, size and component prices.

Choosing a battery type

As a rule of thumb, your choice of battery will depend on price, size, lifetime and environmental friendliness. For example, the lifetime between charges or battery replacements during device maintenance can be extended by choosing a larger battery. However, this will result in a larger physical size and a higher price. For these reasons, choosing a battery is a central part of the component and functionality selection process for your final design. 

Examples of common battery types are:

• Coin cells
• LiPo-Li-ion
• Alkaline
• Super capacitor

Be creative and win the market!

If you are new to this area, our primary advice is to take advantage of the fact that you aren't tied to a particular solution. You can think creatively and keep your options open. By combining a business model, design and technology in creative ways, you can come up with interesting solutions that your competitors don't have. One example is Tive (https://tive.co/tracker). Through their partnership with the USPS, they return trackers via ordinary post.

FORCE Technology's IdemoLab division is engaged in ongoing work to investigate this area of convergence. It will be regularly sharing its results.

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