By Mattan David, Supply Chain and IoT Director, Polymer Logistics.
Sensor-equipped pallets and roll cages can provide highly accurate location, temperature and humidity data, meaning that products reach retailers at the right time and in perfect condition. Polymer Logistics explains how these Internet of Things-enabled technologies are creating the smarter supply chains of tomorrow.
Imagine the connected supply chain of the future – where retail assets can be accurately and cost-effectively tracked every step of the way.
In this brave new world, sensor-equipped pallets and roll cages start their journey in route-optimised warehouses, loaded on to the correct distribution vehicle every single time. Meanwhile, real-time location data means retailers gain far better visibility of what is about to be delivered, therefore improving inventory and cycle times and ensuring that shelves are never empty. Even the customer benefits by using a smartphone app to navigate the aisles and quickly find the products that they require.
All sounds too good to be true? Don’t you believe it. The emergence of ubiquitous connectivity, linking devices through the Internet of Things, means that each of these capabilities is in fact already available, today. In recent times, the logistics sector has been on a rapid journey to digitalisation, meaning that asset-tracking can now provide a host of valuable insights along the entire length of the supply chain – from warehousing to distribution, through to retail stocking and point of sale.
Key technology enablers
Such capability has been made available by the confluence of several significant technology trends. Firstly, in terms of hardware, the availability of smaller, cheaper and powerful sensors has democratised data, meaning that a broader range of assets can now be connected reliably and cost-effectively to the Internet of Things. These sensors can provide information on asset location, surrounding temperature and humidity, motion and much more.
Then there’s connectivity – enabled by the creation of low power, wide area cellular and noncellular technologies such as LoRaWAN and LTE Cat-M1. These robust networks mean that data streams collected by sensors can be transferred outdoors and indoors to the cloud safely and seamlessly. Also, the distinct characteristics of cellular and noncellular networks, with variations in factors such as latency, data rates and operational range, means that an optimal solution can be delivered for the task at hand, depending on specific end-user requirements.
But that’s not the end of the story. Data is essentially meaningless unless it is structured and refined, and that’s where software comes into the equation. The latest user dashboards, created by companies like Polymer Logistics, means information can be presented to the end user on devices such as laptops and smartphones in a clear and accessible way, enabling managers and other operatives to make informed decisions in real-time.
IoT in action
So how can such connectivity be applied to deliver smarter supply chains? In warehouse environments, before transport to stores, sensor-equipped pallets, dollies and roll-cages can provide operations managers with real insight into the flow of goods around a particular facility. By mapping these movements, it becomes easy to spot bottlenecks and inefficiencies, enabling changes to be made to warehouse layouts. The data can also be used to provide information on how long certain activities such as loading a pallet on a distribution vehicle is actually taking, allowing warehouse managers to set more accurate KPIs. The system can also be formatted to ensure that every batch of goods is loaded on to the correct vehicle, eliminating expensive product rejection by the retailer at the store.
IoT-enabled connectivity also has a crucial role to play during transportation. At present, poor asset management means that many distribution companies and retailers can lose sight of products during shipment, causing leakages and blockages to supply. Typically, any one of the big supermarkets can have more than a million roll cages in circulation in Europe at any time. Costing more than 100 euros each, even a loss rate of 10% can have a significant impact on the bottom line. By having sufficient visibility of assets, any problems during distribution can be quickly identified and corrective measures put in place.
Location is not the only factor coming in to play. Sensors can be used to ensure that perishable goods have been transported in precisely the right temperature and humidity, reducing the chances of product spoil. Also, asset tracking can be used to highlight any misuse of pallets on route to the store, reducing any associated product damage that might occur.
Next, it is on to the store, and it is perhaps here that the most significant benefits can be accrued. For supermarkets, for instance, there is real value to be derived from having accurate and online visibility of stock status, therefore enabling them to reduce inventory on site. Also, by knowing exactly where pallets and roll-cages are at any given time, supermarkets can ensure improved availability of products during peak times.
Product replenishment on the shop floor can also be organised in a far more effective manner. At present, in many cases, the act of refilling shelves is perhaps the least automated aspect of a supermarket supply chain, often being carried out by a time-pressed worker with little thought for effective stock rotation practices. With tracked assets, store managers can oversee a ‘first in, first out’ policy, ensuring that products are taken to the shop floor in the correct order to reduce out of date waste.
Delivering consumer benefits
So far, the primary benefits of connected technology have delivered benefit to the supply chain enabling businesses to reduce risk, save money, and create new revenue streams. But there is one last element to the story - and that’s improving the retail experience for consumers.
Connected assets provide an opportunity to increase the availability of in-store information, using Bluetooth to offer push notifications to people using an app to highlight the latest product promotions. Such technology could also be used to help consumers navigate their way around supermarket stores, locating any specific items that they need.
Also, there’s a traceability benefit, too, with shoppers able to use their phones to scan individual product identifiers to get information on the original source of their food they are buying. Indeed, the full sales and marketing advantages of connected assets are only starting to be explored and hold the potential to transform the retail environment.
It’s clear, then, that sensor-equipped assets are underpinning the creation of much smarter supply chains. And, looking forward, as innovative new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning become better understood, there will be a further opportunity to enhance the application of Big Data throughout the logistics and retail sector.
Here at Polymer Logistics, we have more than 20 years’ experience of delivering standard and customised supply chain solutions to warehousing, logistics and retail organisations. That legacy of service and long-term commitment means we can provide a one-stop-shop service which combines all of the necessary hardware, software, connectivity and interfaces to bring the right IoT solution to life for this industry.
That’s requisite because the future is coming fast. By 2020 it is thought that there will be 30 billion devices connected to the IoT worldwide. Tapping into this ever-expanding network of intelligent assets will deliver the faster, cheaper and more accurate supply chains of tomorrow.