Keeping Track & Trace: High-tech tools bring supply-chain transparency

For cargo shipments, it may seem like keeping track of them in real time or tracing their journey, back to their origins, would be a simple proposition. We’ve had radio-frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning satellite (GPS) technology for decades, yet the tiny space within the fuselage of a freighter or the apron of a cargo facility can seem as remote and inscrutable as the stars.

Consider the journey of an active-temperature-controlled ULD that is designed to handle high-value pharmaceuticals. When it leaves the manufacturing plant in the Netherlands at a precisely controlled temperature, the exact time is recorded as it is sent in reefer trucks to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and again when it is loaded into the belly of a widebody passenger aircraft. When the plane lands in Dubai and the ULD is off-loaded at a cool-chain facility for its connecting flight to Shanghai, the time and changeover to the next flight crew is again recorded. Soon after it arrives, however, the ULD registers the ideal temperature, but the end-user realizes the vaccines are spoiled due to a temperature incursion.

Oh, did nobody mention that, during the layover period, the cool-chain facility’s ULD storage room was too full of containers, so there was no available outlet for the active cooling system to be plugged in? That’s a shame – and a loss of thousands of dollars to the client and maybe a dropped customer for the forwarder.

To prevent this, the logistics companies and IT firms of the world have experimented in recent years to find a balance between data-sharing, affordability, efficiency and speed in the track-and-trace business.

“In a way, that still remains the Holy Grail,” said Floris Kleijn, chief information officer for ULD management company Unilode Aviation Solutions. “If you could have a GPS-enabled ULD that will, at any point in time, always let you know where it is. How great would that be? Once you associate the ULD ID number with the electronic air waybill, then the ULD becomes the proxy for anything it’s carrying.”

More importantly, the customer wants the same thing – to have ultimate transparency throughout the supply chain, so that they know, at all times, where their cargo is located in the supply chain and where the potential pinch points are located.

“The key to any of this is making sure that somebody knows how to act and react if something gets out of tolerance,” said Mike Allen, manager of channel partners for the East and Midwest sectors of internet-of-things (IoT) firm Advantech. “As long as everything is staying within that window of tolerance, then you’re almost managing it by exception.”

See Sidebar: Track & Trace Technology Types

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