There are already numerous tracking solutions available on the market. In different ways, they each contribute to improving visibility and logistics performance. This article explores existing and emerging technologies and tools, and what their strengths and weaknesses may be.
There are many digital tools that help supply chain managers with cargo tracking. These tools can of course include both tracking hardware (created to collect data) and tracking software (created to organise tracking information).
The tracking hardware we see in supply chains today includes position tracking tools such as RFID and barcodes, as well as condition tracking tools known as data loggers. In terms of software, platforms such Transport Management Systems (TMS) and, more recently, distributed ledgers, are the most widely used. An emerging tracking technology is IoT-based tracking, providing supply chain data in real time.
How do these examples of tracking technologies and tools work? And what are their strengths and weaknesses?
RFID and barcodes
Despite being two different technologies, RFID and barcodes have essentially the same function in the context of the supply chain: asset and inventory tracking.
Workers can scan either the RFID or barcode as a form of documentation of arrival or departure. This data can then be fed into a logistics database. They are both therefore heavily reliant on manual work. In addition, they are only valuable when and if the cargo arrives at the destination; neither option has tracking capabilities until it is scanned.
To monitor the condition of cargo, data loggers are often used. Data loggers track several different metrics suited to exactly your needs. This could be temperature, humidity, or handling. Data loggers help managers ensure the safety and quality of deliveries. However, just like RFID and barcodes, this capability is only available upon arrival. The data logger must be manually removed from the cargo, and the data plugged into a computer. Had something gone wrong during the shipment’s journey, by its arrival, it would most likely already be too late. Data loggers therefore provide delayed tracking information.
Transport Management Systems (TMS)
TMS are logistics platforms. They help companies organise information on their supply chain in one central place. This provides a much-needed overview of all operations, from shipments to trade compliance documentation. However, crucially, TMS does not generate any data itself. The usefulness of TMS depends on manually putting in data.
Blockchain technology powers distributed ledgers: a secure and decentralised database accessible by multiple different actors in the supply chain. With a similar functionality to TMS, distributed ledgers offer supply chain managers oversight into every operation, with the added ability to collaborate more efficiently and securely. Nonetheless, distributed ledgers also depend on all parties providing information manually.
IoT based tracking
Real-time data is one primary strength of IoT technology. The monitoring of events as they happen allows for immediate notifications, as well as insights into the nature of the issues. This is a powerful tool to help users make smart decisions in good time. A real-time asset tracking solution do not only support the supply chain manager in his or her day-to-day operations; it is also better for customers and partners. The ability to navigate delays ultimately means more reliable deliveries.
Considering the pros and cons
One common element of existing tracking technologies and tools is the need for manual steps. If there is no one to complete these steps correctly, there is no data. This is not ideal. Not only do the manual steps introduce the factor of human error, but the manual steps take time.
This is another shared disadvantage between these tools and technologies. Time in the supply chain, in many cases, is of the essence. Being able to navigate unforeseen events, to prevent spoiling or damage of goods, and to predict and mitigate delays, all depends on having access to real-time information. With technologies such as RFID and barcodes, as well as data loggers, a delay is unavoidable. These solutions turn analogue information into digital formats. While this digitisation makes many business processes easier to manage, digitised operations by themselves do not differ dramatically from non-digitised operations.
Digitalisation on the other hand, is a complete transformation of operations that embraces the potential of digital data. Real-time cargo and asset tracking solutions embrace digitalisation. Based on IoT connectivity, they aim to tackle the weaknesses of existing logistics solutions, increase visibility and offer a wealth of advantages to supply chain management.
Learn more about the pros and cons of today’s tracking technologies. Our white paper also includes information on the challenges faced by supply chain managers, supply chain digitisation vs digitalisation and the benefits of IoT-based supply chain tracking.