The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of many supply chains when it comes to ensuring the safe, secure and rapid delivery of drugs and other critical supplies in a health crisis. Now, however, innovative ways of tracking and monitoring shipments, powered by the internet of things, are promising to enable a new level of reliability and speed of response the world over. In this conversation with SupplyChainBrain Editor-in-Chief Bob Bowman, Hussain Suleman, Vice President of Sales with Sigfox USA, describes the latest advances in technology.
SCB: How can IoT be deployed to facilitate rapid delivery of critical health and safety supplies?
Suleman: That's a very interesting question, and as we move toward a COVID-19 vaccine, it's certainly something that a lot of agencies, pharma hospitals and opportunists are looking at. To answer it, I want to take a step back and look at the asset-tracking industry, which is one of the biggest use cases within IoT. Given the sheer size of that market, huge volumes of assets can be checked globally. We're talking about tracking everything from pallets to parcels, to cars, cows and everything in between. The IoT market is certainly geared up for that.
As we look toward a COVID-19 vaccine, it will need to be delivered across the globe into every country. And it's going to be making a lot of stops along the way. It's certainly going to be quite an unprecedented and mammoth task. Managing the supply chain will be critical, not only because the vaccine will be in high demand, but ensuring the quality of each shipment could be a matter of life and death.
Vial monitors date back to the early 20th century. They involved sticking a label onto the vial with a temperature sensor. If the temperature exceeded a certain amount, the indicator went red, and doctors would know not to use that sample. The technology has since progressed to the use of data loggers, which involve insertion of an electronic device into the vaccine packages or boxes. When the vaccine reaches its destination, doctors can input the data into a computer.
IoT is a game-changer, providing a lot more benefits around checking the status of assets as they move from the manufacturer across borders, across countries, into and out of distribution centers, and into multiple points of use. You want to have real-time visibility across the entire space. To do that, you need network coverage across all of those points. You need a communication device that continuously updates across all stages, one with a long battery life so that it can stay alive for the entire journey. That's where IoT comes in.
SCB: Is battery technology sufficient at this point to last the entire transit of the product in question?
Suleman: Yes, certainly. As the IoT evolves, we see a battery life of five to 10 years plus. I don't see the lifecycle of a shipment as being longer than a month or so. The key to maintaining the battery is controlling how often you send messages, so that it lasts the entire duration.
SCB: I would imagine that this technology was especially tested during this pandemic, during the surge in need for critical medical supplies. Did it measure up to the task? Or is there still work to be done to perfect the technology?
Suleman: At a technology level, it's certainly been perfected, but there are always ways to innovate and move on. As device manufacturers bring down the cost of those tracking devices, we'll see much wider adoption. In terms of how the technology is being utilized during the pandemic, it’s been used to track different assets such as personal protective equipment and supplies — masks, ventilators, hospital beds — but not necessarily vaccines.
SCB: IoT generates so much more data than we ever had available to us before. Can humans handle that inflow of data? Do we require something along the lines of artificial intelligence or sophisticated analytics in order to make sense of it?
Suleman: The exciting part about IoT is that it allows companies to extract data from any and every asset by sticking a device onto it. That gives you a wealth of data, but how do you utilize it? We see a lot of A.I. companies crunching the data, gathering insights from it and allowing companies to have better visibility across the supply chain. And based on that data, they can then make intelligent decisions.
SCB: What about security of information? Is the IoT protected against hacking, cyber threats and theft of proprietary information?
Suleman: It depends on what sort of data you're transmitting. With the IoT, one of the key things we have to deal with is security. Within the microchips you're using, you're embedding some security elements. Our network is secure from the base station. But when you're talking about true IoT, the bits of information you’re passing are all in code. Nobody can just pull out the data and interpret it —it's just binary numbers, ones and twos. Especially on the corporate side, security is certainly going to be a key. There’s work that can be done on it, but the elements to ensure privacy and security are already in place.
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