Intelligent, reusable plastic containers make supply chains more efficient, reduce waste, and boost sustainability.
By Ohad Perry, Wiliot
Make no mistake. Plastic has an important role to play in a more sustainable world. Reusable plastic. “Smart” plastic. It will hasten the creation of a more circular economy, reduce waste throughout supply chains, increase food safety, and more.
We’re talking about reusable plastic containers (RPCs). Crates, if you will, or totes, depending on where in the world you live. They can be collapsed to save space, stacked in trucks and warehouses, or even displayed in stores. When used to transport food, product parts, or finished goods, these RPCs—especially because they’re reusable—save companies money over traditional shipping containers, such as cardboard.
And reports have even shown that RPCs can save companies in other ways. Recently, researchers studied the use of RPCs in grocery stores and found that shipping, stocking, and display eggs with RPCs rather than disposable corrugated boxes could save retailers 53 percent in labor. On average, in an 8-foot display case, stocking and rotating eggs takes workers 10 minutes when they come in RPCs and 21 minutes in corrugated packaging.
Infusing RPCs with IoT Smarts
Now, make those RPCs intelligent with the latest IoT technology and the benefits multiply. Through a small, ultra-low-cost, Bluetooth computer affixed to its surface, an RPC becomes a vital tool in reducing waste and optimizing supply chains in ways that improve efficiency and sustainability. A smart RPC is always smart, because the computing device is always charged; there is no battery. Suddenly, a grocer, always knows where in the supply chain a crate of eggs is located and—of significant interest—whether it’s being shipped at the right temperature.
Such information is especially important in the transport of produce. My company is successfully piloting the use of smart RPCs for shipping zucchini from farm to shelf. Perhaps unsurprisingly, vegetables transported under optimal environmental conditions, so that they arrive on shelves at the peak of freshness, wind up in shopper’s bags more often. The healthy, fresh zucchini looks more appetizing than one that had a tougher journey to the grocery display.
And because it’s traceable from farm to table, it’s safer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently recognized Wiliot, along with our technology partners Roambee and GSM, as a winner of its New Era of Smarter Food Safety traceability challenge. The FDA sought technology solutions that achieve end-to-end food traceability at virtually no cost to the end user.
We should all be alarmed that the world wastes 1.3 billion tons of edible food each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the U.S., of all the wasted food, 28 percent (23 million tons) in restaurants, grocery stores, and food service companies never even makes it onto people’s plates, according to ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste. ReFED estimates another 35 percent (28 million tons) of wasted food is lost earlier in the supply chain, either on farms or while in production.
Benefits of a Smarter Supply Chain
It doesn’t have to be this way, and smart RPCs are an important way of tackling food waste and safety. For example, it can alleviate “inventory anxiety” whereby retailers over-order anticipating supply won’t match demand, often resulting in wasted surplus. A smart RPC of goods, wirelessly communicating its location, condition, and status, can help companies more effectively build a just-in-time supply chain that accurately matches supply to demand.
In a store environment, RPCs designed to fit well into retail spaces can accurately and automatically communicate inventory levels, temperature, humidity conditions, and more. To say nothing of their proven ability to make the job of stocking goods easier. In distribution channels, intelligent RPCs enhance efficiency.
Knowing how much of everything is in the supply chain—and where—allows companies to right-size their delivery vehicles; practice dynamic routing to exploit better, shorter distances; and get goods where they need to go faster while reducing emissions. Such insight also helps companies produce, transport, and store the right amount of inventory. Less surplus, less waste.
When they’re empty, RPCs are cleaned and returned to the beginning of the supply chain—the farm or the manufacturing facility—completing a circle that promotes sustainability and saves money and resources. And they don’t get lost! Like your smartphone, because of their built-in communication ability, smart RPCs can be tracked down anywhere from a computer and a web browser.
The Intelligence Behind Smart RPCs
Smart RPCs get their intelligence from tiny self-powered computing devices affixed like stickers to containers, product packaging, finished goods—whatever in the supply chain needs sensing. When it comes to transport, in addition to RPCs, these devices can add intelligence to pallets, wooden crates, even cardboard as necessary.
Each connects wirelessly to an existing or purpose-built infrastructure of low-cost, Bluetooth-enabled wireless access points. They include sensor interfaces to detect location, temperature, and more and then communicate that data to the cloud where companies collect and analyze the information to make decisions. Their capabilities grow as companies need them. Many start by tracking location, then easily add the ability to sense environmental conditions, fill levels, groupings of products, and more.
And while reducing food waste to promote sustainability is critical, smart RPCs can also improve the supply chains of other goods, like auto supplies, pharmaceuticals, or other products and parts. Even though efficiently moving auto supplies from point A to point B isn’t as obviously good for the planet as reducing food waste in the supply chain, it certainly can be: The fact is, highly efficient, circular supply chains emit less harmful gas. Better business results; greater sustainability. A win-win.
The challenge now is realizing this vision. A smart RPC needs to move among many stakeholders in a supply chain. Each could be operating more efficiently and sustainably. Understanding their role in a circular economy—and the critical role intelligence plays in completing that circle—is the key to success. Smart RPCs shine a light into the darkness of supply chains, where companies simply can’t see what’s going on. Now they can. And the impact will be profound.
Ohad Perry is Director of Business Development, Supply Chain, at Wiliot, a Sensing as a Service company.