From barcodes to RFID tags, and from BLE to IoT, if you’re following recent supply chain trends, you will be aware that everything in your supply chain lately is about these few words. More so, it’s high time to pay attention not just to the supply chain but also to the packaging material, yes, the crates, the pallets, the bins, the totes, and the whole shebang. Call them by any name – RSA (Reusable Supply Chain Assets), Returnable containers, or just 'Pallets,' they can burn a hole in your supply chain budgets if ignored.
Adding to the list, LPWAN is a new technology that you not only need to know about, but also adopt as soon as possible to make your supply chain truly efficient. But first, let’s talk about the basics of LPWAN before jumping into the grave details.
Why LPWAN? Why Not RFID or Bluetooth?
1 word: ‘Infrastructure-less!’
Yes, you read it right, you don’t need to set up any kind of infrastructure for the solutions like NB-IoT or Sigfox or LTE-M, neither at your facility nor at your vendors’ or customers’.
To understand this better, imagine you’re at work where your colleague’s cabin is separated from yours by a glass pane. If you wish to speak with your colleague across the cabin, you have two options:
1. You could shout out loud, not knowing for sure if he or she would be able to hear you.
2. You could get up, go to his or her cabin, and speak in your normal voice.
The difference between these two ways is that, with the first one, you didn’t have to get up from your cozy chair, but you also burst your lungs up shouting. With the second option, you had to make the effort to get up and walk up to your colleague to convey the message, to make the message clear. While the first one drained you of your energy, the second one didn’t.
Now, think of the first option as cellular connectivity with wider coverage but more energy consumption, and the second one as RFID, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth with lower energy consumption but also limited coverage area.
Let us add another important piece of detail to the same story!
What if all you need to tell your colleague is that it’s time for a meeting? Now all you need to do is point at your watch and the message will be conveyed over a wide area and with less energy spent. The only trouble here is that your friend wouldn’t always be looking at you. So, you must make that signal several times before the information successfully reaches the intended receiver. This is LPWAN – transmitting small packets of messages over a wide area network consuming low power – hence, the name ‘Low Power Wide Area Network’.
So, LPWAN has come as a solution to overcome the shortcomings of RFID and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) solutions. While BLE transmits messages over a shorter coverage area with low energy consumption, LPWAN transmits messages over a wider area, still not consuming much energy by sending small packets of information at infrequent intervals.
If you’ve used RFID in your facilities, you must be aware of the levels of time and effort that setting up the hotspot gateway takes.
LPWAN doesn’t require a gateway in order to transmit the information, thereby eliminating the need to set up the infrastructure. This makes it the less expensive option, sending the sensor data directly to the primary server.
Nb-IoT, LTE-M, and Sigfox are all examples of LPWAN communications.
The 3-Step Game to Track Returnable Containers
Tracking goes beyond sticking tags on assets, it’s about ensuring ROI, and following these three steps can help improve your odds of getting ROI when dealing with LPWAN technologies:
Step 1 – Pick the right LPWAN tags and connectivity for asset monitoring
Step 2 – Establish what your data analytics and alerts can save you
Step 3 – Enforce prompt action
1. Pick the right LPWAN tags and connectivity for asset monitoring
There are many types of LPWAN tags with a lot of features other than just tracking the asset. These tags can tell you a lot more than the real-time location of your containers. Of course, you could always choose what you need, like monitoring temperature, humidity, shock, or light. What tag you select for your RSAs would typically depend on what the RSAs are carrying.
For instance, if the shipment is carrying perishables that need to be stored within a particular temperature range, you could choose a tag that has temperature sensors to monitor any excursion in the temperature during transit or in a warehouse. Similarly, for shipments carrying fragile goods, tags with physical shock sensors would be the most appropriate.
Once you have the right sensors, it’s important to ensure connectivity wherever your asset travels. Not all countries have Sigfox networks and not all regions have Nb-IoT networks available for use, and even if they do, it may be a different telecom provider that you may not be able to connect to.
Therefore, pick an LPWAN returnable container tracking company that provides multiple connectivity options on a global level, and one that works on 2G as a backup, even if it means faster battery drain of tags temporarily.
2. Establish what your data analytics and alerts can save you
Once you’ve figured out your LPWAN tags, it’s time to focus on 'data'. The data you harvest and analyze needs to directly drive savings in some critical areas, and on the go. Real-time, AI-enabled prescriptive analytics that consider the following savings areas are key:
i. Savings from reduced RSA loss
By regularly getting aging, damage, and theft alerts regarding your returnable containers, a lot of associated costs could be reduced. Through these alerts, you'd come to know of any pallet that moves out of your chain of custody and you can take timely action to track it back or prevent aging. This ultimately helps you prevent the loss of the assets, giving you an immediate savings.
ii. Savings from reduced working capital costs associated with 'lost days in shipping'
Imagine having 2,000 consignments worth millions, and not having the containers to pack them in. This lack of containers would delay the shipment by a couple of days, which could cost you big. Now, suppose you have a system in place through which you could know exactly where those containers are lying in your supply chain. Getting these containers back in time using this visibility would save you the associated working capital costs and the interest rate, which would mean saving millions every year!
iii. Savings from reduced detention costs due to 'lost days in shipping'
One of the biggest costs that we usually undermine in the supply chain are detention bills. Whenever your truck stands idle for even a day waiting to get the consignment loaded, the delay gets you billed for detention, for which one of the main causes is lack of pallets or containers. Imagine how much you'd save if you could prevent that kind of delay for the thousands of trucks you use every year.
iv. Savings from reducing planning and operations time
Knowing where exactly your assets are at any given point gives you the advantage of being able to predict the location of each asset when it is required and route it to another location at the earliest. This would make it easier to route assets from one facility to another based on inventory too, reducing the overall time spent in planning the routing of the RSAs.
v. Savings from better utilization of RSAs
And of course, you owe the biggest saving to utilizing your returnable containers better. Doing this would reduce the overall time spent by your containers in back-hauling and return journeys, which in turn would lessen the idle time per RSA and increase the 'per asset' revenue.
3. Enforce prompt action
After knowing what you can save and ensuring that you have the right data to give you these savings, it’s time to put your analytics and alerts into action! But, how do you do that?
i. Set important alerts
a. Aging RSA alerts – Set alerts for assets that have been sitting at a facility beyond their scheduled aging time.
b. Lost/misplaced RSA alerts – Make sure you get alerts about assets that are out of your chain of custody, which means they’ve moved from the facility away from other assets. Any asset not found in their place could be lost or misplaced and only real-time alerts can help you track them back.
c. Asset deficit and surplus alerts – If one facility requires RSAs but they’re lying at another facility where they’re not required, the needless shortfall may affect the whole supply chain. Real-time alerts regarding the response time on ship warehouse to another would prove helpful in speeding up the supply chain activities. You never want even one truck to stand idle owing to the lack of shipment containers.
ii. Automate stock routing and planning
Look for a solution that uses Robotic Process Automation driven by sensor data intelligence to set up automated container routing plans, order the return of containers from one location to another, and more.
iii. Don’t discount prompt human response:
With everything else in place, the last, and most important step is to set up a supply chain control tower to monitor the day-to-day operations in your supply chain. The best way to go about it would be to hand it over to experts to get digitized visibility of the day-to-day operations in your supply chain and end-to-end supply chain data analytics. This wouldn’t save you just the setup cost and effort, but also the time, which you can now invest in other business activities.
Knowing in real-time where your reusable/returnable containers are, gives you the advantage of being able to take timely action on the information, which makes LPWAN power some of the best asset monitoring solutions. Upgrade your visibility today with LPWAN tagging solutions and optimize your supply chain budget effortlessly.