Asset tracking presentations drew considerable interest at the PACK EXPO show, drawing the largest audiences to the Reusables Education Center. With escalating interest around the Internet of Things, visibility, and compliance, as well as the need to squeeze even more cost out of the supply chain, asset tracking is a hot topic. Participants for one session, the Industry Panel on Asset Tracking Technologies included:
- Laszlo Horvath, Director Center for Packaging & Unit Load Design, Virginia Tech (moderator)
- Cindy Goodman, IoT Business Development Manager, AT&T
- Bill Wark, Sales Director, Sigfox
- Mike Marzolf, Director Operations & Business Development, Xtreme RFID
Here were some of the key themes explored:
Costs are coming down – Sigfox offers $5 hardware
“We’ve been in an era where you could only track very expensive assets because you would have to pay $300 or $400 for a device to track it,” Goodman stated. “Now with cost having come down a really long way, you can track much less expensive containers or other assets that may not be worth as much, but they are important.” Low powered networks, she noted are the biggest thing that has happened recently for IoT, providing the capability to track things like temperature and humidity in a more efficient way, lowering cost. Lower pricing is opening up IoT to a lot more use cases. Because those costs have come down, she said, you can do so much more with it.
Wark of Sigfox stated that he has hardware that is less than $5 that can last up to two years. “So for tracking a $20 pallet that can make sense,” he said. “With a low energy device, it can last 2,3 or 5 years.”
The cost of hardware will be influenced the amount of additional variables being tracked, such as temperature and shock, as well as battery life.
Marzolf of Xtreme RFID noted that RFID chips can be very inexpensive, and when structured in a parent-child relationship, can offer a cost-effective tracking solution. The parent communicates information up to the cloud, but the child is the asset, which communicates the data to the parent, he explained.
Proof of concept/Scalability
“It is all scalable,” said Marzolf. “You don’t need to do everything all at once. You can do a proof of concept to generate an ROI.” With a low investment, you can determine whether the technology is supporting operational improvements that will exceed the cost of investment. He noted that customers can be overwhelmed by the array of technology available to them. He recommended “taking a simple proof of concept approach, generating data on a small scale. Show the improvements that are being made, that help you to justify purchases.”
“We see that customers learn a ton by doing a proof of concept,” Goodman said. Customers can put out 10 or fewer devices in the field and then they have “aha” moments when the information comes in and they make decisions based on that. “Proof of concept is highly recommended as a learning process before you go deploying thousands of units.”
Working with technology providers
Goodman recommended starting backward, figuring out what you want to accomplish. That, she said, will help vendors lead you to what the appropriate technology.
Marzolf commented that companies can jump in and do IoT themselves without understanding all of the technologies available to them. In his company’s practice, an initial ISD (Initial systems design) is developed for the customer. “We’ll spend a few days to understand their process and then put together a scaled implementation plan.”
Companies trying to implement on their own can miss key points. Marzolf stressed that there is a range of asset management tools already fully developed and available. “You don’t need to make a huge investment through your IT group to develop a platform,” he said.
IoT as a service
Goodman suggested thinking about offering IoT as a service to customers, which might be of particular interest to rental pool operators. There might be a revenue potential. “If you can offer temperature tracking for an entire trip, that may be very valuable to your customer,” she suggested. “So that is something you can do to bring in more revenue, and which not only covers the cost of the IT service but adds to your bottom line as well.”
Participants did not recommend sitting on the fence until the fence until an ultimate tracking device is developed. One participant observed it is possible to integrate new technologies as they emerge. One can mix technologies and “Lego” it together, combining RFID, LTE and other technologies to gather sensor data and then send it up to the cloud. “Technology changes so fast,” Marzolf said. “Understand that you can scale the investment you made and integrate it with emerging technologies so your investment is not being wasted.”
Technology is indeed moving quickly. In October, Sigfox announced that it intends to develop a 20 cent disposable IoT radio that will target applications such as tracking mail and packaging. In September it announced it had extended its coverage to 36 countries, with complete national coverage now in 17 of them. It also introduced a new hybrid chipset that will allow customers to build both Sigfox and cellular connectivity into devices, providing the opportunity to create more flexible tracking solutions.