The Internet-of-Things in Logistics


The Internet-of-Things (IoT) phenomena have a profound impact on logistics, with an enormous variety of current and potential applications. Here we scratch the surface, examining where IoT fits in logistics and looking at an example application area.


The connected intelligence of IoT can be embedded A) across the logistics infrastructure and B) in the containers and products themselves.

IoT in Logistics Infrastructure

Source: Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

The Internet-of-Things can include connected intelligence in different elements of logistics infrastructure:

  • Vehicles – This is perhaps the epicenter of IoT in logistics, with modern trucks, planes, locomotives, and ships bristling with sensors, embedded processors, and wireless connectivity.
  • Sites—Vehicles and containers pass through or dwell in many sites on their journey, including ports, yards, consolidation/deconsolidation centers, warehouses, and distribution centers. A tremendous amount of intelligence and sensing capability can be embedded in the equipment and structures of the sites, including:
    • Mobile equipment—e.g. forklifts, yard tractors, container handlers, mobile cranes, and so forth;
    • Stationary or semi-stationary equipment—e.g. gantry cranes, conveyor belts, carousels, automated storage and retrieval systems;
    • Site structures and ingress/egress points—e.g. sensors in dock doors, yard entry/exit gates, light poles, embedded in floors or under pavement, attached to ceilings and other structures.
  • Roads/Lanes – Intelligence is starting to be built into roadways, railways, runways, canals/locks, and other transportation conduits. Because they cover so much more territory, the intelligence built into these is typically sparser than IoT in the vehicles and sites.

IoT in Containers and Products

Source: Photo by Swapnil Sharma from Pexels

In addition, intelligence is increasingly being built into (or attached to) the products and items themselves and/or the containers they are moved in such as cases, pallets, intermodal containers, unit load devices (ULD), crates, tanks, cylinders, drums, intermediate bulk containers (IBC), insulated shipping containers, and so forth. This intelligence could include RFID to identify items or containers (and their contents) as they pass by way points or dwell in any location on the journey. It can also include sensors to determine condition, such as temperature, shock, vibration, humidity, and so forth. The item may generate an alert when something goes beyond certain thresholds. For example, a container of temperature sensitive pharmaceuticals could generate an alert when it senses an excursion outside of the required temperature range, so that action could be taken before the drug’s efficacy is compromised.1

Example Application: IoT in Trucks

IoT technology (sensors, embedded processors, and wired/wireless connectivity) has actually been around in commercial trucks for decades, such as the tachograph (mandatory in German trucks over 7.5 tons since 1953), Event Data Recorders (1970s), electronic engine controls (1980s), wireless communications (1980s), and RADAR collision warning (late 1980s). With today’s trucks an enormous amount of information is collected and available.

  • State Line Crossing
  • Driver ID
  • Instantaneous Fuel Economy and Rate
  • Average Fuel Economy
  • Fuel Used
  • Trip Length, Time, Average Speed
  • Vehicle Speed
  • Cruise Set Speed
  • Engine Load Percent
  • Engine RPM
  • PTO Set RPM
  • Fuel Temperature
  • Boost Pressure
  • Coolant Temperature
  • Oil Pressure
  • Cold Mode on/off
  • Multi Torque on/off
  • Ambient Air Temperature
  • Intake Air Temperature
  • Intake Manifold Temperature
  • High Coolant Temperature Warning
  • Oil Pressure
  • Coolant Level
  • Low Voltage
  • Vehicle Speed
  • Engine Speed
  • Distance traveled
  • Power Take Off (PTO) fuel and time
  • Idle fuel and time
  • Lifetime total, Leg totals, Trip totals
  • Next Preventative Maintenance
  • Last Preventative Maintenance
  • Engine Fault Codes
  • Hard Braking Warning
Figure 1 – Example of Some of the Information Collected by a Truck’s Engine Control System

In addition, many trucks are outfitted with GPS, data logging units, and more. The intelligence built into these vehicles can be used for a variety of purposes, such as:

Source: Photo by CARLOSCRUZ ARTEGRAFIA from Pexels
  • Shipment tracking – Using GPS capabilities in the truck, fleet operators can provide authorized parties with up-to-date tracking information about the location and expected time of arrival of the shipment.
  • Route optimization – Location information can also be combined with other data (such as traffic, average transit times, new orders, etc.) to provide both real-time and ongoing route optimization.
  • Congestion Relief – Intelligence built into port infrastructure, drayage trucks, chassis, and intermodal rail yards can be used to optimize availability of chassis, timing of pickups, help drivers find containers faster, reduce turn times, and relieve congestion around ports, rail heads, and other bottlenecks. This pain point has been highlighted in the recent problems at the port of LA/Long Beach (see Congestion? Headache? The Flu? No. It’s the Port of LA.)
  • Security – Sensors can generate an alert when a truck’s seal or door has been opened unexpectedly, or in some cases when holes have been made in the truck wall. Trucks can also be monitored to send an alert when they deviate outside the geofence defining the expected route.
  • Maintenance – Trucks can predict when parts should be replaced and order their own maintenance. Driving habits can be monitored and modified to reduce stress and wear and tear.
  • Safety – Some safety-related IoT intelligence is as basic as anti-lock brakes or collision avoidance. In addition, habitual speeding and or excessive hard braking can be flagged and offending drivers trained and incented to change their driving habits.
  • Fuel economy – There are a number of ways IoT can improve fuel economy: Reducing sub-optimal driving behaviors (driver monitoring and training); idle-time reduction (route optimization); monitoring and maintaining optimal tire pressure ; monitoring and maintaining optimal engine performance ; optimized gear shifting.

These are just a few of the things being done with IoT-enabled trucks. In future articles, we will explore some of the other facets of how IoT is impacting logistics in even more profound ways.


1 Note: The concept of a package of pharmaceuticals generating an alert in real-time is more of a future scenario. The more common scenario today is that temperature is recorded throughout the journey. Then at the destination, if excessive excursions have occurred, the drug can be identified as compromised and returned or disposed. Recurring issues can be analyzed and the underlying problems solved (e.g. recurring problems with specific pieces of equipment, sites, or workers). For more, see “Carton-level Temperature Tracking for Cold Chain Pharmaceuticals – Why Now?” — Return to article text above

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