How the IoT is shining light on complex supply chains
May 5, 2020
A report on the supply chain session at last month’s IMC Industrial IoT Online Summit, which saw presentations from MultiTech, NimbeLink, Smart Logistics and Tata Communications.
Complex supply chain routes need real-time location and dynamic tracking, but there is a demand for more than that, explained Kim Bybjerg, vice president at Tata Communications, at last month’s IMC IoT Industrial Online Summit.
Using IoT technology, companies can follow the supply chain from the raw materials being produced, through the factory and distribution to the end user. It really is end to end, said Bybjerg, who is also vice chairman of the IoT M2M Council (IMC), which organised the event.
However, many companies are still relying on traditional cellular connectivity or wifi to achieve this, and Bybjerg believes there are problems with that approach.
For a start, wifi is not reliable and has problems with coverage. It is not suitable for high volume and critical data and there are security issues. Traditional cellular also has its limitations.
Cellular is defined and licensed at country level. The mobile network operators (MNOs) will usually decide what is available and, said Bybjerg, this is usually not what the supply chain industry really needs. International roaming options are often predefined and many do not suit the needs of the businesses using them.
What is really needed, he said, is the flexibility and autonomy of a global network.
“You don’t want to be locked into one MNO,” he said. “You need tailored and secure connectivity.”
Companies also want full control and visibility over their assets globally and the ability to integrate with existing enterprise systems.
“We want eSIMs that are enabled and flexible to change profiles,” he said. “We want a local private mobile network complemented by a global virtual mobile network. This will let you extend the capabilities of a smart factory environment to the outside world using eSIMs. An eSIM allows you to use multiple MNOs and you can choose between operators.”
Sara Brown, chairman of the IMC and vice president of marketing at MultiTech, said the industrial market had unique supply chain requirements, especially as some of the assets were critical and thus needed to be secure.
“Security is really important,” she said. “Some of this is high capital equipment. It has to last a long time and that means the connectivity you put into it also needs to last a long time. In industry, there can be a lot of vibration and dust, and the connectivity needs to withstand this.”
It was important, she said, to ask questions about this when choosing a hardware vendor. The vendor also may need to know about the problems of global supply chains, such as different regulations and technology requirements.
“It can be difficult to make the right choice,” she said. “It can be difficult to ask the right questions and ask for help.”
A key element of asset tracking is situational awareness, said David Houghton, general manager at NimbeLink. “You need to know what is going on around you and the IoT can bring that,” he said.
He looked at the example of the armed services, which he described at the Holy Grail of asset tracking. They have been doing this for decades, building up edge-level intelligence so they can make macro decisions.
In contrast, the supply chain today is a set of fragmented silos. What was needed, he said, was data not just about the plane or train but about the actual product being carried and as it moves between different carriers.
This, he said, had become more achievable as the cost and size of products reduced while their capabilities increased.
“This means you can use WAN-based technologies at the item level,” he said. “That is a fundamental change.”
This is because the technology provides not just location but condition monitoring. Information can be captured right down to the item level regardless of the silo it is in. He described this as a paradigm shift that was lighting up the supply chain from the bottom.
David Gustafson, president of Smart Logistics, expanded on this by saying that item-level monitoring brought visibility, accountability and optimisation. Visibility means conditions monitoring to show the true and timely condition of goods from the factory floor to the customer’s dock. Accountability eliminates black holes in the business, with the ability quickly to identify and address root causes for performance. And optimisation can drive action at the right moment in a process to effect positive change and measure results.