This article is an excerpt from the report Geospatial Intelligence: Powering the Next Wave of Supply Chain Performance.
A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.
In Part Three of this series, we discussed the role of geospatial intelligence in distribution network planning, logistics/route optimization, and supply chain risk management. Here in Part Four, we look at asset tracking and management.
Asset Tracking/Asset Management
Most organizations have a wide variety of types of assets that require tracking and managing (i.e. scheduling, repairing, moving, replacing, etc.). This includes fixed and portable machines, vehicles, tools, medical and surgical equipment, computing/networking equipment, containers and pallets, and so forth. When people talk about tracking and managing assets, this may include:
- Asset Accounting — How many of each type of asset do we own, what is their value, and period of depreciation?
- Location — Where is each asset located, right now?
- Availability — Who is using the asset and for how long? When will it be available for others to use again?
- Condition — What is the condition of the asset? What conditions has it been exposed to?
- Maintenance — When will each asset next need maintenance? Which parts are predicted to fail next and when should they be replaced to prevent that failure?
A GIS platform provides a good framework for collecting, viewing, and using all this diverse information. It may be integrated with purpose-specific applications such as accounting, asset management systems, maintenance systems, and asset scheduling systems, including vehicle routing, scheduling, and dispatching.
Methods of Tracking
There are a variety of ways to track assets. Here are some examples:
- RTLS – Realtime Locating System1 can be used within a facility or yard to keep track of the location of each asset in real-time. This is useful when continuous real-time location is required.
- Check-in/check-out — For example, a tool crib might have an access card for each employee and RFID2 or barcode on each tool, to track which employees took which tools. If the location of the employee is also tracked, then by association you know where the tool has been.
- Scan-to-location — Each location in a facility has a barcode on it (often a very large barcode, to allow scanning from a distance). When an employee, such as a forklift driver carrying a pallet, leaves that pallet at that location, they scan the barcode on the asset (pallet) and the barcode on the location (rack slot). This tells the system ‘I just put this asset at this location.’ These systems rely on handheld or vehicle-mounted devices with workflow to ensure that the employee can’t move on to the next step until they’ve done the required scans.
- GPS — Combined with cellular or other type of backhaul, GPS is the most common method of tracking assets outside of buildings, such as vehicles or shipping containers being tracked throughout their journey. As the cost of GPS and low-bandwidth, low-power cellular continues to drop, this option has become more viable. Some solution providers (e.g. FourKites and MacroPoint) can use the GPS and cellular connectivity in the truck drivers’ phones to provide tracking of trucks.
- RFID waypoints — RFID tags may be placed on assets and used with RFID readers at chokepoints3 and waypoints4 throughout a journey. These may include mounting readers at the entrance/exit gates to a container yard, on the crane that loads/unloads a vessel, at dock doors of a DC or warehouse or plant,
at points along a railroad, or even temporary readers at the entrance to a temporary storage location.5
This provides a breadcrumb trail of points the asset has been seen so far on its journey, including when it entered and exited from a facility. Thus, you would know if the asset is in a specific facility, or in the leg between that facility and the next one it is destined for. Similarly, you know if a container has been loaded onto and/or unloaded from a vessel, entered/exited the container yard, and so forth.
- WPS, BLE — WiFi Positioning Systems6 and BLE7 are up-and-coming, potentially lower-cost systems that can be used in both local settings and global journeys to track cartons, pallets, containers, and other assets. For end-to-end journeys, outside of a metropolitan area, these will generally not provide continuous location, but may provide more granularity (i.e. more read points throughout the end-to-end journey) than traditional waypoint systems.
As noted, some of these approaches give near-real-time updates to location, so that assets can be continuously tracked on a map. Others will give less granular location information, such as a tool being in the crib vs. checked out or a container has left facility A but has not yet arrived at facility B. The right approach should be chosen to fit the application’s needs and budget.
Track and Trace
The desire, need, and capabilities for track and trace, traceability, and condition monitoring are continually increasing. There are many reasons to track the provenance and chain-of-custody of products, both inbound/ upstream (components and materials) and outbound to the end customer. These include sustainability goals (e.g. validated fair trade, conflict-free, sustainable sources); consumer desire for authenticity and connection with source; brand value; ensuring safety and quality; complying with regulations such as pharmaceutical, food, and aerospace traceability requirements; and anti-counterfeiting, to name a few.
Tracking follows an item and provides data (and potentially notification) at each step of its various stages from preparation and pick up at the origin to delivery and sign-off at the final destination. Tracking is typically accomplished by scanning a barcode on the item or shipment, although manual data entry can be done as well. Once a package or shipment has been associated with a vehicle, further tracking granularity can be achieved by tracking the vehicle. The simplest form of this is via a geofence around origin and destination to generate vehicle depart and arrive events. Dynamic precise ETA (discussed in Part Five) can be seen as a compliment to or extension of shipment tracking functionality.
Challenges of Tracking with Multiple Carriers and Channels
When various third parties are used in a multi-stage journey, implementing end-to-end tracking can be challenging. Similar challenges occur, even for single-stage journeys, when a large company uses a large variety of carriers and logistics service providers, where each provider has their own app and interface for shipment tracking data. A GIS system can provide a central platform for gathering and unifying tracking data. In order to do this, carriers and service providers need to expose their tracking data via web services.
The largest providers do this, but smaller providers may not. Each provider delivers their tracking updates in their own proprietary format.8 Thus a major integration and mapping effort are often required to standardize and normalize tracking data before ingesting it into the GIS platform.
Role of GIS in Track and Trace
First and foremost, the GIS platform serves as a centralized repository consolidating and normalizing all the diverse tracking data from different carriers and 3PLs, from tracking networks, and from direct tracking devices, all on one system. It also provides a platform for visualizing that tracking data in a variety of ways, such as aggregate views of all shipments and filtered views (such as shipments bound for a specific destination, or for a specific order, or related to a specific project, or only shipments that are running late, or various combinations of these and other filters). For an individual shipment, seeing which stage it is at or where the delivery vehicle actually is can provide an additional level of confidence and comfort beyond simply knowing ‘the shipment is on its way.’ The same platform can be used to alert for potential delivery delays.
Analyzing Track and Trace Historical Data
Once a track and trace system has been in place for a while, it provides a rich history from which intelligence can be teased out. One example would be analyzing origin-to-destination travel times at different times of day and days of the week for different routes between the pair. In this way, the route planner (person and/or algorithm) can pick the best time slot for that shipment or the best route to take at a specific time. Machine learning has made these kinds of analyses possible, with powerful results.
Dynamic Precise ETA
When vehicles, vessels, and conditions are monitored in real-time, it creates the possibility to create a more dynamic and precise ETA.9 A simple version of this is shown in Figure 1 , which shows a truck with a delivery being tracked. It shows where the truck has already been with historical time stamps of past locations for the journey (the dots on the map), a bullseye icon where the truck currently is, a red dot where an accident has slowed traffic ahead, and the new estimated time of travel to the destination. This warning can be given the moment the system senses there has been an incident ahead, with delays predicted based on the rate traffic is backing up and possibly other intelligence (e.g. number of lanes blocked, expected time to clear the road, etc.). If the delay is severe enough, actions can be taken such as finding an alternate route, notifying the customer, or in a critical case, looking for an alternate source, possibly using expedited delivery services. In the hypothetical example below, the operator saw that sufficient inventory and a vehicle and driver were available at the Chicago DC and used them to get the shipment to the customer on time, due to the vital importance of this particular shipment and the value of saving the lifetime relationship with this specific customer.
Figure 1 – Real-time ETA Monitoring and Alternate Inventory Availability for Delayed Shipment
More complex and sophisticated dynamic ETA is required for global multi-mode shipments. This may include monitoring ocean and inland weather, port throughput and congestion, inland congestion, unplanned port stops, and so forth. Complex event processing engines, combined with machine learning, have been developed to get continually better at predicting precise ETAs.
Not all delays require attention. If a shipment from a factory that’s bound for a port is delayed, but will still arrive well within the ship loading cut-off window, then it may not be necessary to alert anyone. Ideally, a system provides dynamic thresholds, regarding when it is necessary to alert someone about delays. These thresholds might be based on customer-mandated delivery windows or known tolerances, ocean vessel loading cutoff times, production schedules and inventory levels, or other factors. The system should also have a set of role-based rules about who to notify.10 Along with the alert, it is useful for the system to provide various information to help deal with the delay. This might include things like the port or customer’s cut-off time for delivery, alternate sources (this might be inventory at another DC or from another supplier), availability of expedited transportation options, and so forth. Ideally, the system will prescribe corrective actions.
Optimizing Deliveries Within 15-Minute Windows
A major cement company in the UK uses a GIS system integrated with an optimization system to manage a fleet of over a thousand cement mixer trucks, delivering 5,000 to 8,000 orders per day. The optimization system evaluates a matrix of all possible origin-destination combinations to recommend an optimized delivery sequence per truck. Those sequences are projected by the system onto the street network to create the actual routes. Each truck typically delivers 7-9 orders per day, typically needing to arrive within a specific 15-minute time window. Deliveries to construction sites are especially challenging, since there can be new roads built that don’t show up on older maps, and or temporary closures of existing roads. The system needs to be continuously updated and dynamically account for changing conditions. For example, if a road is obstructed for a couple of hours during construction, the cement truck needs to be dynamically rerouted. Nothing can stand in the way of these trucks delivering on time, or they will lose their window and have to discard their load. To accommodate this dynamism, the platform reroutes and recalculates every 30 seconds.
The next installment (Part Five) in this series looks at the use of geospatial intelligence in providing traceability and provenance assurance.
1 RTLS = Real-Time Locating System which tracks assets (and/or people) within a building, yard, or local space. The technology used may be RFID, Bluetooth, infrared, other wireless, video analytics, ultrasonic, GPS, or some combination of these and other technologies. The type of RTLS technology selected depends on the locating precision required and other environmental and use case requirements. — Return to article text above
2 RFID = Radio Frequency Identification. Small tags, attached to assets or people, can be read by an RFID reader using radio waves. The RFID tag sends its own unique ID, so the system knows exactly which asset or person is there. One common use of RFID is in ID or access control cards, to provide access to a room or facility. When RFID is used by the worker for gaining access to the tool crib and for tracking tools (each with an RFID tag on it) coming into and out of the crib, then the check-out/check-in process can be almost entirely automated. A worker uses their access card to gain entrance, simply grabs whatever tools they need, and walks out. The system automatically reads which tools were taken and by whom. The reverse happens upon return. — Return to article text above
3 A chokepoint is a narrow opening that all vehicles or personnel entering and exiting an area or region must travel through, such as a border crossing or the entrance/exit gate to a campus or yard. — Return to article text above
4 A waypoint is a specific point along the way in a journey. — Return to article text above
5 The U.S. military sets up temporary RFID readers at forward storage locations in-theater. Construction companies may take the same approach at staging and construction sites. — Return to article text above
6 WPS uses maps of locations created by sensing different combinations of WiFi networks (SSIDs) in different locations. — Return to article text above
7 BLE = Bluetooth Low Energy, a low power (and thereby battery-conserving) protocol that can be used with Bluetooth’s beaconing capability to provide relatively accurate location locally. — Return to article text above
8 Each parcel carrier, airline, postal service, ocean carrier, trucking company, and 3PL will have their own format for presenting tracking data. — Return to article text above
9 ETA = Estimated Time of Arrival. ETAs are typically based on average travel times. The reality on the ground can deviate a lot from these averages and the shipper may not know about substantial delays until the shipment fails to arrive on time. A more precise ETA can be highly valuable. — Return to article text above
10 For example, the system might be configured to notify 1) the transportation manager responsible for this shipment, 2) the procurement manager responsible for this shipment, 3) the production manager at the factory that needs the shipment. — Return to article text above
To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.