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How IoT Is Reinventing Asset Tracking for Logistics

Consumers and enterprise companies have become used to package tracking technology. But IoT and blockchain could offer a new dimension of resolution in logistics.

Daniel O'Shea

March 5, 2019

7 Min Read
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Nowadays, supply chains tend to be distributed, complex and involve a growing number of parties. To deal with the intricacy of modern logistics, supply chain companies are upgrading their ability with technologies like IoT to accurately track assets.

“Supply chains are becoming more global by nature, and you can’t wait until something arrives to know what condition it’s in, or if something went wrong on the way,” said Thomas Fuerst, head of WING marketing at Nokia. WING is the telecom firm’s Worldwide IoT Network Grid, a managed service that allows network operators to extend their IoT reach globally to support the distributed supply chain needs of their enterprise customers.

Data collected from IoT devices attached to assets can bring greater real-time understanding and coherency in a complicated supply chain environment, but to do so, IoT networks need to have significant reach, be able to provide more detailed information than just the location of a given asset, and enable a sense of accountability amid an ecosystem of parties that might otherwise point fingers at one another when something goes wrong.

For example, a factory relies on raw material deliveries could learn through an IoT device on the shipment that it is headed in the wrong direction. Having that information in real time could allow the factory to cancel the shipment, help redirect it or buy it from another source and keep its supply chain schedule on track. Conversely, if the factory has no such data and the shipment fails to arrive on schedule, its ability to process the materials and deliver goods out to its own end customers could be severely hampered.

It’s Not Just About Location

Enterprises that want to globalize their supply chains rely heavily on their transportation and logistics partners to do so. They may start with local transport partners and IoT network partners for the shipping services and the connectivity to track what is being shipped, but the longer the chain, the more parties may be involved in different regions.

Network architectures like Nokia’s WING offer a way for those enterprises to think globally, but act locally. Fuerst described WING as a “cloud native globally distributed IoT mobile core network.” The company is building IoT core nodes in data centers throughout the world, and IoT network operators in each of these regions can hook their own access networks into the WING architecture to leverage global network coverage that they otherwise only would achieve through complex, individual roaming agreements with carriers in other countries. The benefit to enterprises is that they can go to an operator participating in WING, such as AT&T, and quickly set up IoT-enabled asset tracking for wherever they need it in WING’s network coverage.

That’s one emerging method of achieving asset tracking reach into more far-flung locations. However, as enterprises are able to find partners that can help them extend IoT coverage throughout their global supply chains, they will be looking to do much more than just pinpoint the location of assets.

“Asset tracking is not just about finding the location, but a lot of other things that have impact on your business operations,” Fuerst said. “Once you know where something is, you want to be able to manage it.”

For example, IoT sensors can be used to collect data regarding environmental conditions, determine how long a shipment remained in a particular truck or at a certain port, and whether it is being tampered with or moved in a way that violates handling instructions. This data can then be used to resolve invoice disputes, provide evidence for insurance claims or help companies determine when and where they need to make changes in their supply chains that might help them save money or improve efficiency.

Feeding the Blockchain

While IoT device can generate many different kinds of asset tracking data points, blockchain technology could hold the key to synthesizing that data and providing details about the supply chain that can help enterprises address practical problems that arise while assets are en route.  

Martha Bennett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, said via email that while the blockchain evolution remains at an early stage, “some of the most active projects are in supply chain tracking. For example, IoT devices in the shape of sensors are key to any track-and-trace use case which also requires that goods are kept within in a particular temperature range.”

IBM operates a blockchain-based cloud network called Food Trust targeted at his kind of use case for cold chain logistics. “IoT sensors to keep track of temperature, humidity and other factors,” said Ramesh Gopinath, vice president of blockchain at IBM. “Things like fresh meat will only last for about 20 days, so you want to make sure that along the way you don’t submit the shipment to temperature stress, or that it stays too long in one place. All of the data that is being collected can be fed into a blockchain.”

Using blockchain also can help in pinpointing accountability and responsibility in supply chains with many different participants and goods changing hands very quickly. “Let’s say you are trying to move something from one end of the world to the other,” Gopinath said. “You’ve got bills from all these different carriers and all these different logistic services, and if you have the information about how long the shipment spent at a particular port or on a particular truck on one end or the other, you can compare this data to the invoices you are given, and make sure everything is correct. This is an example of how you could use blockchain to build value on top of asset tracking information.”

Fuerst said expanding use of IoT for transportation and logistics use cases means that a truck carrying a load of assets potentially could have multiple layers of IoT devices generating data that could help an enterprise track and manage its assets — not only an IoT sensor on the asset itself, but also IoT sensors attached to the truck and its electronic systems, as well as sensors inside the truck’s cabin monitoring the driver’s condition and behaviors.

“You need all this information from an insurance perspective,” Fuerst said. “If there’s something wrong with the shipment where did that go wrong, and why? Who needs to foot the bill?”

All of that data could go into a blockchain system to provide a detailed picture of an asset’s path to its destination. However, blockchains are only as trustworthy and secure as the sources contributing data to them, and IoT devices may be one of several sources of input. Gopinath said blockchain data from IoT devices could be considered more trustworthy than other sources because it is generated from the actual location of the asset, potentially attached to the asset itself, but that still assumes the IoT device and network architecture are secure, and that the data entering into the blockchain is accurate.

As Bennett point out, “blockchains provide proof, not truth. What’s equally important, though, is ensuring that the IoT device itself is genuine and can’t be tampered with, and that the data it sends and receives can’t be falsified.” Bennett said ongoing innovation and industry-driven projects like the Trusted IoT Alliance’s “Challenges” series could help evolve IoT and blockchain architectures to become more secure foundations for applications like asset tracking and management.Ultimately, as supply chains grow more distributed, asset tracking is becoming a more complex. IoT-connected devices and the data they generate can help enterprises understand what’s happening in these scenarios in real time, and companies can apply that understanding in practical ways to operational issues. “You basically need to find out what information is relevant to solving business problems in an ecosystem,” Gopinath said. “IoT can help provide clues that can be factored into determining what’s going on in the supply chain. You have to come at it from the point of view of what evidence is valuable in helping solve your business problems?”

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