Tracking technology is nothing new in logistics. It has been widely used in warehouses and on the road for many years. However, more and more customers are demanding even greater attention to detail when it comes to the traceability of their supply chains. What do courier firms and international logistics agencies need to know about the most recent developments in tracking technologies? Read on to find out.
Postage Stamp-Style Tracing Tags Developed
One of the big problems for firms handling packages is that the sort of tracking technology that has thus far been deployed has been bulky. As such, the search for something as flat and discreet as a postage stamp has long been sought-after among tech companies as a simple solution to the problem of tracing lower-value items that are despatched in smaller quantities. Now, even envelope-sized consignments should be able to be traced on their journeys around the world thanks to the latest invention of an Israeli supply-chain technology company known as Wiliot.
Wiliot announced in June that it had not only made small tracking tags that could be used with conventional supermarket crates instead of entire truckloads of goods or shipping containers but that it had also struck its first commercial deal for their use. According to the company’s announcement, its first big customer is a supermarket chain named Shufersal, the largest grocery retailer in Israel. The entire company will be making use of the tag-based tracking system to trace much of its produce as it makes its way from farms and suppliers to its stores. Shufersal is now heavily invested in tracing its products from their various sources to each supermarket it runs. What’s more, showing the location of the goods is not the only thing the postage stamp-style tags are good for. According to Wiliot, their technology can measure temperature changes – ideal for perishable goods, of course – as well as numerous other factors that may have an impact on the freshness of goods in transit.
Based in Caesarea, the Israeli tech company is just one of an increasing number of start-ups that are choosing to develop tools aimed at the courier delivery and logistical sectors. They clearly see that monitoring goods as they pass through the various stages of both supply chain and distribution channels is something that the market wants. Importantly, Wiliot’s executives reckon that its system uses devices that are small and inexpensive enough to produce that it won’t just be supermarket chains with fresh goods that will soon be making use of them. The company has already gone on the record to say that it thinks that couriers who ship crates, as well as larger agriculture carriers, will want to adopt the system to offer their clients more accurate and up-to-date information at every stage of the delivery process.
Although Wiliot is currently only working with Shufersal as its primary commercial partner, executives at the firm said that they expect to move into other condition and time-sensitive distribution sectors soon. Many in the logistical industry in Israel have already interpreted this as an ambition to move into the pharmaceuticals and textiles sectors next, both in the domestic market and globally. One commentator suggested that because the tags are roughly the size of postage stamps but contain all-important microprocessors that can provide the required information on Shufersal’s produce crates, they will prove their value in numerous markets. Although, initially at least, they will track fruit and vegetables from farms to store shelves, they can also be deployed for individual consignments of drugs and clothing orders.
According to Wiliot, the tiny nature of their devices is the key attribute that makes the traceability system work at the operational level. Indeed, they say it has the goal of solving something of a problem that many supply chain managers face every day. Today, the progress – or otherwise – of many groceries is tracked with larger devices that are placed into shipping containers or individual trucks. However, this means that what happens when goods are unloaded is often not fully traceable as individual crates are split up from one another, perhaps because they’re being sent to different stores or even placed onto alternative shelves within shops.
According to Stephen Statler, the senior vice president of marketing at Wiliot, ordinary and everyday items – such as clothing, vaccine vials, plastic pallets, cardboard boxes and bags of salad – can all be traced thanks to the novel tags because they are linked to the internet. He said that one of the exciting things about this technology was that, like postage stamps, the tags don’t need battery power to work. However, they make use of Bluetooth wireless technology to send information to authorised personnel via the internet. Speaking to the press, Mr Statler said that he reckoned the tags would eventually fall in price to much less than the cost of a stamp and would end up being in the region of 10 cents, about 8 pence.
According to some academics in the United States who have been taking an interest in Wiliot’s technology, the system could do more than provide a better tracking method for retailers and suppliers of perishable goods, however. For example, one professor at Penn State University, Mark Capofari, who specialises in supply chain issues, commented that he thought greater visibility in the industry would solve many of the problems the sector faces right now. He cited the current inability to fully track smaller consignments of food, something that leads to operational inefficiencies and, in the worst cases, to food waste. He also suggested greater transparency in the sector might lead to fewer personnel costs for courier firms. Certainly, Wiliot has not been shy in making the case for less theft and wastage of goods thanks to more accurate traceability, something they think is one of the system’s major plus points.
Blockchain Technology and the Logistics Industry
Although the use of blockchain technology is often mostly associated with the world of cryptocurrencies – in order to create a publicly verifiable account of ownership of digital assets – it can also be deployed in the supply chain sector to great effect. One way that some suppliers are using blockchains is to generate a so-called digital passport for products so that when they leave their warehouse, they can be more easily tracked at each stage of their journey. Digital passports that are held in a blockchain include information on where products are now, to whom they have been sold as well as when and how they were made. The tracing functionality that blockchains have means that end consumers can be more readily assured that they are buying products that are the genuine article and what they claim to be.
Of course, this is a great thing for suppliers of high-end and one-of-a-kind items that would like to prove the provenance of their goods. However, it isn’t just top brands that can benefit from blockchains in the supply chain in this way. For example, companies that promote themselves on shared ethical values might want to provide evidence that they are operating properly. Blockchains allow them to trace goods from their origin so they can prove they’ve been traded fairly, for example, and not interfered with or exchanged for unethical goods in the supply chain. Overall, like Wiliot’s technology, the basic idea is to help companies to become more transparent in what they are doing, thereby establishing greater levels of trust with their customers.
For some, this is less to do with the origin of a product or commodity but the way in which it is handled by the supply side operations themselves. In other words, courier firms and logistics companies that have invested in sustainable fuels and more ecologically sound vehicle technology now have the blockchain technology at their disposal to provide a more trackable service to their clients that proves the goods they handle are being dealt with sustainably. For instance, blockchains are already being used to trace the carbon emissions associated with individual consignments as they make their way around the world including the last-mile delivery process.
This has led some to ask whether Wiliot’s tacking system – or something like it – will soon help to make all consumer shipments, no matter how small, as traceable as entire container loads. Zvika Fishheimer, Shufersal’s executive vice president, certainly seems to think so. He said that the capacity to see the progress of every crate of fruit and vegetables in real-time was nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, he thinks that tracking that such items are being maintained at the right temperature throughout the entire delivery process has the potential to change the industry forever. With more traceable goods on offer to consumers and more trust in them thanks to blockchain verification processes along the way, it is hard to argue with this sort of sentiment today. Given that wasted food alone costs the global economy an estimated $940 billion each year – about £770 million – any operational efficiency improvements at a time of increasing household financial pressures are likely to be very welcome indeed.