Efficient supply chains rely on fast, accurate, effective tracking of raw materials, products, shipments and fleets, wherever they are in the world. As the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution transforms every part of the supply chain, it’s worth exploring the different technologies that you can use to monitor and measure the movement, storage and other aspects of goods.
The Benefits of Real-Time Tracking Technology for Supply Chain Management
Before we evaluate the different types of real-time tracking solutions, we will highlight the benefits that this type of tracking can provide:
- Provide better handoff of goods: Tracking technology allows you to definitively understand exactly where goods are at any particular time, so that transfers between supply chain partners are accurate and up-to-date.
- Allow for more accurate scheduling: Manufacturers, logistics providers and other organizations will know when goods are going to arrive making it easier to plan production and shipping schedules.
- Reduce the risk of loss: Location tracking can enhance security for transporting goods as you’ll know where they are at every step of the process. This can reduce the risk of theft or other losses.
- Identify delays and bottlenecks in the supply chain: If goods are delayed, you can understand their journey through the supply chain, learn what the problems are and resolve them.
- Get accurate reporting: Supply chain management relies on high-quality data. A combination of real-time positioning and easy-to-use reporting applications gives organizations the confidence they need.
Here’s an overview of the various real-time tracking hardware and software that supply chain managers and logistics businesses can use to keep tabs on everything.
Fleet Tracking Technology
Fleet tracking hardware is installed on the various vehicles that logistics companies use to move goods around the supply chain. This might include truck cabs, railcar chassis, ocean vessels and other modes of transportation. Fleet tracking typically uses IoT devices that reports the position of a vehicle based on GPS coordinates and provides either intermittent or real-time location updates. The GPS hardware is integrated with location-reporting software that queries the GPS devices and shows their location on a map.
Shipment Tracking Technology
Some organizations may choose to track the shipment itself, instead of, or in addition to, the vehicle it’s associated with. GPS IoT devices can be attached to intermodal shipping containers, individual pallets or other parts of the shipment to provide real-time location updates. This can be particularly useful once shipments are removed from their vehicles, for example if they are moving from one intermodal transport to another, or the shipment is being stored somewhere. As with vehicle tracking, shipment tracking devices work with location software to provide accurate data on exactly where the shipment is at all times.
Warehouse and Storage Tracking Technology
Once goods arrive at an intermediary or final destination storage location, it’s important to understand where they are in the warehouse. There are a few different ways to implement this tracking technology.
Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons for Location Tracking
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons are battery powered beacons that transmit their location to any Bluetooth-enabled devices in range. Smartphones, tablets and other technology can detect each unique BLE beacon and provide an approximate location. The iBeacon protocol and hardware, developed by Apple, makes use of BLE technology. Due to limited range and accuracy, BLE beacons are of limited use to larger supply chains, warehouses and logistics providers.
Ultra-Wideband Beacons for Location Tracking
Ultra-Wideband (UWB) beacon technology is among the most accurate solutions for real-time location and tracking within a warehouse or storage location. UWB systems work by placing UWB “anchors” around a space to be tracked, providing an invisible “grid” that can monitor the warehouse. UWB tags can be attached to specific products or assets, and the UWB anchors will track where every tag is located. This is represented in the UWB software, allowing fast and accurate position reporting.
UWB technology is often used on forklifts, carts and other equipment in a warehouse environment. This allows warehouse managers to track high-value equipment—UWB can easily be combined with RFID, barcode or other tracking technology to identify all the items being transported by that equipment. The high level of accuracy provided by a UWB solution means it can be an expensive option, but for accuracy and speed, it is unmatched.
Radio Frequency Identification for Location Tracking
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has long been used to track inventory levels and locations of goods in warehouses. Although RFID technology remains popular, it does have some limitations, especially for passive RFID tags:
- RFID tags are often only scanned when they go through a certain point, e.g. being delivered to the warehouse or placed on a shelf
- RFID gates and readers can be expensive to purchase and deploy
- RFID passive tags have very short ranges
Because of these reasons, RFID tags are typically used more for inventory management and stock level tracking rather than real-time location identification.
Barcodes for Location Tracking
Although barcodes are a passive way to track location and inventory levels, they are still some of the most ubiquitous technology available. Barcodes are inexpensive and easy-to-implement and can be combined with other tracking technologies to provide low-cost inventory management and limited location management.
Storage Conditions Monitoring Technology
In addition to tracking locations, some supply chain technology can also monitor the conditions that goods are transported or stored in. This type of technology relies on IoT sensors to monitor environmental factors and provide regular updates. Examples of this type of monitoring include:
- Temperature monitoring for cold storage and transport of products like agricultural goods or certain pharmaceuticals
- Atmospheric monitoring to detect changes in atmospheric composition, humidity or other factors
- Light-level monitoring for photo-sensitive products
- Other types of sensors for radiation, pollutants or other factors
Typically, these types of monitoring devices will be paired with software that provides alerts and alarms if thresholds are breached.
Supply Chain Tracking Software
Tracking information is only useful if organizations can act on that data. That’s why it’s useful to have a centralized, integrated asset tracking platform that can consolidate information from all devices and present a comprehensive view of goods in the supply chain. Due to the complexity of this data, it’s vital to have a simple user interface that allows supply chain managers to drill into the details they need to streamline and optimize the movement of goods.
Blume Visibility allows you to gain visibility and continuously updated ETAs of shipments, orders and items for you and your customers for every move, every mode, and every mile. Manage exceptions in real-time to take advantage of opportunities, and track and resolve issues based on your business priorities.