Today’s pandemic shows why data visibility is essential to logistics.

By James Kirby, SVP, T-Mobile for Business

Going into 2020, leaders across the logistics industry knew innovation would be paramount to refining and expanding operations. Growing demand for e-commerce, stiffer competition in more markets, increasingly tight margins... these offered plenty of motivation. And then we were all hit with one of the biggest surprises and challenges of our professional lives: the novel Coronavirus.

COVID-19 has since affected the logistics industry in different ways, in different places—and at different points in the supply chain—from month to month. According to the Logistics Managers’ Index (LMI)—which is based on 8 unique components that involve inventory (levels and costs), warehousing (capacity, utilization, and prices) and transportation (capacity, utilization, and prices)—the LMI score for April 2020 fell to an all-time low. Sure, seeing warehouse capacity, transportation utilization, and transportation prices contract during a pandemic isn’t surprising. But decreased demand for transportation, along with high inventories and high demand for warehousing, underscores the crucial need for visibility and traceability from end-to-end across the supply chain.

Virus or no virus, connected devices drive better decision-making.

Pandemic aside, most logistics industry leaders would agree visibility has increased in recent years—and I bet even more would now agree there’s room for improvement. Across the industry, Internet of Things (IoT) devices are growing in utility1 and usage.2 Connected devices provide logistics companies with line-of-sight to assets in transit, the ability to monitor cold chain conditions and track utilization across the entire ecosystem, and much more. And at the core of these advancements are a few key technology categories that help support supply chain continuity now and are poised to accelerate those operations in a post-COVID world.

IoT: Allied Market Research estimates that global IoT spending in the transportation market is set to more than double by 2023, with expenditure expected to reach nearly $330 billion. That spending growth will continue, even as IoT sensor and controller costs decline rapidly with mass production and economies of scale.3 Lower prices mean more devices—and these devices will likely be everywhere inside and outside vehicles, in shipping containers, and on pallets. What won’t be everywhere are Wi-Fi networks, which can quickly degrade as more sensors are added. In addition, while Wi-Fi can offer a larger range than cellular, it’s also more easily obstructed by obstacles and can see connectivity rapidly decline if devices leave a designated area. On the other hand, cellular networks are better suited to this environment due to underlying protocols and hardware designed for such uses.4

Choosing between Wi-Fi and cellular for your IoT project will depend largely on the priorities of your device and what it’ll be used for. For example, if security is a primary concern, enterprises may lean toward cellular networks as they’re generally held to a higher security standard than public Wi-Fi networks. Logistics companies need a reliable wireless network that can reach all corners of the country to keep their devices in contact with each other. Nationwide cellular networks deliver.

Narrowband IoT: Another recent advancement that’s driving increased visibility, especially in remote areas, is the Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) standard. The GSMA describes NB-IoT as a “standards-based low power wide area (LPWA) technology developed to enable a wide range of new IoT devices and services” which “significantly improves the power consumption of user devices, system capacity, and spectrum efficiency, especially in deep coverage.”5

For instance, when a company deploys thousands or tens of thousands of asset trackers, device and service costs can add up quickly. Not to mention, the bigger the battery, the bigger the asset tracker and the harder it is to keep it operational, especially for returnable assets like racks, cages, and containers. NB-IoT offers the most efficient, cost-effective option for nationwide asset tracking and enables extended battery life for devices—up to 10 years—with expansive coverage to reach rural sites and deep indoor locations. And for companies concerned about keeping their connected devices secure, cellular networks offer telecom-grade security advantages over technologies operating on unlicensed airwaves like LoRAN or Sigfox.

Asset Tracking: As Vidya Subramanian, VP of Products at Roambee, puts it, “Knowing in real time where the product is makes all the difference between spoilage and delivery.”

Asset tracking on a cellular-based NB-IoT network allows logistics companies to track and manage assets across each warehouse, trailer, or container—even down to a single parcel. This enables both high-level and fine-grain visibility into your logistics processes. In light of what we now know about COVID-19 and how it’s transmitted, ensuring packaging integrity and safety from the factory loading dock to the customer is just as important as getting a product there efficiently. With this line-of-sight, teams can proactively prevent disruptions or quickly adjust their approach if issues arise.6 It’s no wonder the asset tracking market is expected to almost double to $32 billion by 2024.7

Fleet Management Solutions: The latest advances in IoT and connected sensors have greatly elevated the capabilities of asset monitoring systems, which can now offer a much broader range of information about the location and status of the trailer as well as the condition of cargo inside. Armed with that data, fleet managers have much greater visibility into vehicle operations. Whether focusing on hours-of-service (HOS) compliance, managing available freight capacity, maximizing fuel efficiency, or identifying preventative maintenance, dispatchers and drivers alike will have the data required to set themselves up for success.

This improved access to data and insights can also help to reduce costs and improve the bottom line. For instance, input-output expanders (IOX) can monitor individual parts of your vehicles, such as tire pressure sensors. These devices can provide component-level insights about problems like underinflated tires, which in addition to improving driver safety, can also increase the vehicle’s fuel consumption by up to 15%.8

Data-driven opportunities at every step of the supply chain.

The greater the visibility into transport and logistics processes, the greater amount of data produced. With thousands, if not millions, of sensors generating data at each stage of transport, the sheer amount of data to be processed becomes a central challenge.

Fortunately, advancements in cloud networking technology has made it easier to manage troves of data by offering new, more robust cloud-based software solutions. Automated analytics have been revolutionized by cloud-based processing, which is now being improved by shifting to edge computing. This involves collecting and assessing data at the sensor, device, or touchpoint itself rather than waiting for it to be sent back to a cloud or on-premises server.9 Thus, instead of having a sensor that merely gathers data and relays it to the cloud, the device itself can directly turn that data into actionable information that can be processed and quickly acted upon. Scaling this across an entire connected logistics process creates previously impossible visibility within your operations, shedding light on opportunities for both insight and efficiency.

By processing data closer to the source, traffic to the cloud can be substantially reduced—up to 99.8% in some instances.10 For logistics companies, there’s a double benefit: the possibility of reduced cloud hosting costs and faster insights. And, with the potential of 5G, these insights will one day be able to be acted on automatically. For example, imagine a future where a damaged track will instantly trigger freight trains to re-route, communicating with impacted trains without human intervention. Or imagine how truck routes will be optimized on the fly as weather sensors along roads detect a sudden change that could create delays. These sensors could re-route one truck or an entire fleet as needed to optimize service without jeopardizing on-time delivery.

“By processing data closer to the source, traffic to the cloud can be substantially reduced—up to 99.8% in some instances.10 ”

The future of logistics is wicked smart.

It's likely too early to know all the impacts of COVID-19 on logistics but there’s a good chance U.S. companies continue the multi-year trend in logistics spending.11 According to a team of researchers at MIT, “supply chain visibility is a surefire way for companies to gain consumer trust and can even lead to increased sales from certain customers.”12 If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that consumer trust and business continuity means more than ever. And for some businesses, the time to act is now or never.

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