June 14, 2018
technology | Cloud Systems

Improving visibility—in the cloud

Improving visibility—in the cloud

Cloud-based asset-tracking solutions are giving organizations a better view into their supply chains—and helping them improve productivity and efficiency inside, outside, and on the road.

By Victoria Kickham

Cloud-based asset-tracking solutions are giving businesses a clearer view into their supply chains—and the ability to react more quickly to changes and make better decisions on everything from fleet management to quality and compliance monitoring. Compared with manual processes or traditional on-premise solutions, cloud-based solutions make it easier to access, aggregate, and analyze data. For one thing, their ability to gather data across multiple locations and analyze it in real time (or near-real time) speeds up the entire process, eliminating the need for cumbersome steps and complex system integrations that slow down the flow of information—and feeding users' desire for easier, faster access to information.

"Ubiquitous connectivity and users asking for information in real time at their fingertips has led to this revolution in cloud computing," says Nitesh Arora, head of marketing for Milpitas, Calif.-based Cloudleaf, which offers asset-tracking solutions that utilize edge computing (where analytics and data gathering take place at the data source) and the cloud.

The advent of such solutions also provides a pointed example of how cloud-based IoT (Internet of Things)-powered technologies are gaining a foothold in logistics and the supply chain, and how asset-tracking programs are particularly well-suited to advancing the mission of the cloud.

"Connectivity is the biggest advantage," says Arora. "The cloud is always on and can help you analyze data across multiple parties in the ecosystem, giving you the ability to react to changes in the supply chain much more efficiently."

Using a series of sensors and gateways, cloud-based asset-tracking solutions can gather data in the warehouse, in the yard, and on the road; analyze it in the cloud; and then report back to customers in a variety of formats. Cloudleaf launched its suite of solutions last fall, and the technologies are now in use with more than 10 customers in the pharmaceutical, automotive, and industrial markets. It will introduce a new mobile gateway this summer that will include enhanced GPS and cellular capabilities for gathering real-time in-transit data. The company joins a field of like-minded competitors, including BlackBerry Ltd., Honeywell, and Roambee Corp., all of which have introduced new or enhanced asset-tracking solutions in the last year or so, capitalizing on the connectivity trend that is driving the adoption of cloud-based technologies across the business landscape.

A recent study by material handling and logistics industry trade association MHI underscores these points. Its 2018 Annual Industry Report, published in partnership with Deloitte Consulting, shows that cloud computing and storage is the most-adopted new technology in the industry; the study of more than 1,000 supply chain professionals reveals an adoption rate of 57 percent. Adoption is expected to grow to 78 percent over the next two years, and to 91 percent over the next five years, according to the report. The use of sensors and IoT technology is on a similar growth path. Nearly half of respondents to the 2018 MHI study say they are using sensors in their supply chain operations. And though the adoption rate for IoT is just 22 percent today, it is expected to reach 50 percent within two years and 79 percent within five years.

"Digital transformation is top of mind for pretty much every executive out there," explains Arora, pointing to the convergence of IoT and the cloud as an important and growing means of solving supply chain problems—especially when it comes to inventory, fleets, and warehouses.

ENHANCING VISIBILITY

A clearer view into their supply chain gives organizations better access to data so they can, in turn, make better business decisions. Providing that supply chain visibility is a hallmark of cloud-based asset-tracking solutions, which generally come in the form of sensor tags that can be mounted on equipment or trailers, placed on boxes or containers, and even embedded into pallets. Sensors monitor the asset's location and condition, and can track mileage, maintenance needs, and utilization levels of trucks and trailers. Data are transmitted to a gateway and then analyzed in the cloud, and most companies deliver the information in the form of dashboards that can be accessed on a variety of devices; information can also be fed into an organization's enterprise applications.

The end result is access to information that can help reduce costs, improve productivity, maintain or improve quality levels, and prevent losses, among other benefits. Consider this: A grocery wholesaler can now track a shipment of lettuce down to the smallest details of temperature and humidity while en route to its destination, potentially allowing the wholesaler to avoid costly problems such as product spoilage. This can be especially helpful in the pharmaceutical industry, where failure to comply with government tracking and tracing regulations can cost companies millions in fines and material losses. Converting cumbersome manual tracking processes to those that employ sensors and the cloud not only increases efficiency, but also improves accuracy and quality.

"You have to make sure product is monitored not just for where it is, but for the condition it's in," explains Arora. "[With IoT and the cloud,] you never lose visibility of the product. For us, it's always on. Our customers don't have to scramble to see if they are in compliance."

IMPROVING MAINTENANCE, SECURITY

Cloud-based solutions are also making headway when it comes to better utilizing, maintaining, and securing fleets of trucks and trailers. Philip Poulidis, senior vice president and general manager at Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry Radar, says these are three key issues the company's asset-tracking solution is designed to address. The solution uses a sensor-based monitoring and tracking device, cellular connectivity, and Web-based applications that analyze data and deliver reports via a map-based interface that users access in a secure online environment. The small monitoring device is placed inside the truck or trailer and can detect load status (including percentage of load), as well as temperature, humidity, pressure, motion, and location. Sensor readings are taken every five minutes and sent to the cloud, where they are continuously analyzed.

Users can set the system to perform automated yard checks and to continuously monitor trailer utilization throughout the day. This helps fleet managers more effectively maintain usage levels and improve driver productivity.

"Customers tell us they've been able to improve utilization of trailers by about 10 percent," says Poulidis. "[This allows them to] take on more business and use their existing fleet more efficiently. In other cases, customers have sold some trailers [because they found they were underutilizing them] and put the money back into their business."

Such features also help reduce the time truck drivers spend locating trailers in the yard and at customer sites. Poulidis says companies are saving between 40 minutes and an hour of driver time per day by automating the tracking of trailers and containers.

"That adds up to a lot over the course of a year," he says. "It can add up fairly quickly in terms of cost savings and driver frustration. Every trucking company is looking at any way it can to retain the drivers it has or attract new ones. If you can save a driver 40 minutes to an hour by not looking for a trailer in a big yard ... that's an [advantage]."

In addition, cloud-driven mileage reports help improve fleet maintenance, augmenting the routine visual checks most companies rely on drivers to perform. Fleet managers can also use the solution to improve security. BlackBerry Radar can detect when a trailer door is open in a high-risk area, for instance, and send an alert to the driver and/or fleet manager. It also detects and sends alerts if something is missing from the trailer or if the trailer is not fully loaded.

EVOLVING TRENDS

Warehousing trends are contributing to the growth of cloud-based asset-tracking solutions as well. Poulidis points to companies' desire to store products closer to the consumer, which has led to a rise in "warehouses on wheels," in which some large retailers are renting trailers from trucking companies to store products for quicker delivery to consumers.

"Many people don't think about the logistics behind that," he says, pointing to a company's ability to accurately stock and replenish these so-called "micro-warehouses." "Having visibility into the capacity of the trailer is important in those situations."

A growing comfort level with cloud-based IT (information technology) solutions is also helping to sustain the momentum. Data security and privacy have been the chief concerns about the cloud, and those are beginning to ease as the technology becomes more ubiquitous and providers emphasize security methods and features. Poulidis points to the BlackBerry Jarvis software-as-a-service security analysis tool as an example. The tool analyzes software components for security and vulnerability. It was designed for use in the automotive supply chain but can be applied in other industries as well.

"For the most part, companies have overcome concerns they have [about the cloud]—primarily because in their lives as consumers, they are comfortable with cloud-based applications," explains Poulidis. "And even in their businesses, companies are using a lot of cloud-based services for their daily needs. So I think it's a natural thing for them now. It's a generally accepted fact that this is how business is done."

About the Author

Victoria Kickham
Senior Editor
Victoria Kickham started her career as a newspaper reporter in the Boston area before moving into B2B journalism. She has covered manufacturing, distribution and supply chain issues for a variety of publications in the industrial and electronics sectors, and now writes about everything from forklift batteries to omnichannel business trends for DC Velocity.

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