The past year has been both blessing and curse for supply chains. During a period of unprecedented demand, fueled by a newly at-home public’s reliance on e-commerce, all aspects from production to shipping were stretched to their limits.
While an increase in demand is certainly a good problem to have, breaks in the supply chain — whether due to holdups in international shipping, COVID-19 quarantine slowdowns at food processing plants and docks, or other hiccups in logistics — revealed growing pains for industries that have been slowly evolving to meet the needs of an increasingly digital world.
As we look ahead, it can’t be taken for granted that 2020 represented some sort of anomaly in demand and increased pressure on supply chains. The reliance on e-commerce hit a fever pitch over the past year, but the shift is more of a forecast than a response to the pandemic. Some more extreme estimates anticipate that global freight demand could triple within 30 years, while projections for the short term signal continued economic growth, particularly in supply-chain sectors.
It’s going to be paramount for industry supply chains to adopt new technologies that improve efficiencies and combat potential roadblocks going forward. With a windfall aided in part by a pandemic-fueled boom, there’s never been a better time for the industry to invest in cutting-edge technologies that help address the demands of an evolving world economy.
Telematics for Shipping Optimization
There have been a number of digital shifts within shipping over the past decade that have created conditions for improved safety and efficiency. With mass adoption of GPS tracking, the chain of custody throughout the supply chain, from containers to trailers, trucks, distribution centers and last-mile delivery, has become more easily accounted for throughout a shipment’s journey.
Simultaneously, the 2017 electronic logging device (ELD) mandate required a new level of accountability and oversight through electronically recording drivers’ hours of service (HOS). This mandate created another technological boom in the trucking industry with a focus on driver safety, while offering fleet managers another source of data to identify new efficiencies. Beyond required HOS records, ELDs can help drivers navigate optimized routes, reduce time-consuming paperwork, and record driving behaviors such as speeding, harsh breaking, hard turns, and idling, which not only help improve safety but also fuel management, equipment maintenance and utilization.
In addition to ELDs, telematics solutions for unpowered equipment such as trailers, containers and chassis help carriers and private fleets to right-size their tractor-to-trailer ratios, reduce capital expenses, and find available equipment faster.
While in-cab ELDs and trailer tracking devices offer a solid baseline for GPS-driven location data, new advances in the internet of things (IoT) and other smart technologies have the ability to transform fleets with increased situational awareness of freight and equipment. These advances offer new intelligent data streams that can maximize shipment capacity and ensure safe shipment handling, particularly for sensitive or specialized goods.
Fleets have been steadily increasing the adoption of sensors and cameras on their trailers and assets to find greater capacity, monitor the condition of cargo or freight, check for shifts during transportation for any potential damage, and identify or prevent spoilage and more. Carriers can improve their relationships with shippers by communicating more accurate estimated time of arrival, or when any anomalies are spotted that enable them to prepare receiving docks in advance and in turn reduce dwell time.
This confluence of new telematics tools is aided in large part by advances in power technologies. Standalone tracking device platforms now feature supercapacitor battery technology as well as solar power, removing the necessity to tether to a truck’s power source, which increases sensor and camera systems’ reliability and standalone value. All of these advances create the conditions for a more intelligent supply chain. Translating these efficiencies into action is another story altogether.
Breakthrough in Logistics Software
All of the hardware advances provide a valuable source of information, but without corresponding advances in wireless technology and logistics software to make sense of all of this data, it’s largely rendered unactionable.
Older technology, particularly in GPS, relied on the system of the time, which was the relatively reliable 3G cellular network. However, as updated sensors and IoT integrations demand faster connections and greater data bandwidth, their adoption is also aligning with the availability of 4G/LTE and 5G networks — and the 3G network sunset by 2022 — meaning that more data can be transmitted at much faster rates to make it usable by fleet and operations managers.
These increased connection speeds are also corresponding with advances in logistics technologies to help make sense of all the data. Fleet managers are better able to track the position and status of all of their cargo and communicate with drivers and shippers in order to better coordinate along every point in the supply chain. With easily translated data, interactive dashboards that delineate shipment statuses, and triggered alerts to any potential issues, inefficiencies and errors within the supply chain can be corrected in near-real time. This newfound reliability would have been a dream a decade ago, but is rapidly becoming a reality as demand on the industry increases.
The stresses put on the supply chain in 2020 revealed some of the weaknesses of industries that have been in a state of evolution for decades. With an increase in demand and projections for further growth in the years to come, now is the time for the supply chain to embrace the transformational potential of the technologies available, to increase efficiency and safety and ensure that the supply-chain industry is prepared to handle it.
Mark Stanton is general manager for supply chain with PowerFleet.
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