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Is IoT a Silver bullet for the logistics industry?

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IoT is a huge disruption of this century and no facet of human life or the economy can remain untouched by it. One sector where IoT can make a vast difference is the logistic sector.

IoT is a huge disruption of this century and no facet of human life or the economy can remain untouched by it. One sector where IoT can make a vast difference is the logistic sector. For the last two decades, the industry sector has deployed sensors and network technology to enhance their operational efficiency, but the deployment was in the silo. But thanks to the miniaturisation of microprocessors, ubiquitous 4G network, development of low-cost IoT networks, GPS, Geolocation tools, cost-efficient sensor technology, actuators, RFID, handheld scanners, advanced camera, cloud computing, big data and analytics software, logistics has become a big frontier for the deployment of IoT technology.

Normally, the term logistic is used in the sales logistic context. But in a holistic sense, the logistic chain comprises procurement logistics, production logistics, sales logistics and recovery and recycling logistics. IoT imparts efficiency in procurement logistics (movement of raw materials and parts from suppliers to manufacturing site) and ensures that no inventory piling up in the warehouses. Production logistics deals with the movement of materials and products within the production site for packaging and storing the products. In case of recovery and recycling logistics, products, waste and recyclable material (such as empty cans, plastic bottles, packaging, computers, and inkjet cartridges) move from consumer to recycling site. As more and more companies across the world are adopting the circular economy business model, reverse logistics ensures that the by-products generated from the metabolism of the industrial process are recycled and reused.

Previously in sales logistic context, goods and products move from the warehouse to distributors, from distributor to retailers, and from retailer to final consumer. But the advent of the big retail malls has truncated the distribution channel as products move from warehouses to direct mega retail stores. But post-Covid pandemic, consumer behaviour has again changed and now consumers prefer to buy from online stores rather than from brick and mortar stores forcing companies to supply goods directly from their warehouses to the end-user. This new normal has posed an enormous challenge to the logistics industry. Efficient and reliable logistic operations need all-weather roads and digital infrastructure. India has an excellent quality of artery roads (superhighways, national highways and state highways) but urban roads and rural roads, where last-mile delivery is executed, are vulnerable to rain and other weather-related stress. Traffic congestion in urban areas is also an enormous challenge for the logistics industry. In this context, drones can be employed for the last mile delivery of food or parcel or medical supply in densely populated areas as well as remote areas. Furthermore, the Indian logistics industry needs a robust IoT solution in Warehouses operation and fleet management, too.

The widespread adoption of pallets (item-level tagging) using RFID has transformed the warehouse operation. Wireless readers can capture data (volume/dimension) transmitted from each pallet as it arrives through inbound gateways, eliminates manual counting and volume scanning of pallets. While Cameras attached to the gateways are used to detect damage in real-time, Sensors are used to monitor the quality of products (temperature/humidity) in warehouses. By employing connected LED lights with automatically dimming and lighting features according to activity, Smart warehouse energy management connects HVAC and utility networks to optimise energy consumption. Smart forklifts are attached with pressure sensors to detect the load variation and reduce forklift accidents, improve safety for workers, and prevent accidents during the loading and unloading the pallets. The applications of IoT in terms of automated cranes, conveyors, industrial robots, wrapping and labelling machines and vehicle tracking systems reduce human drudgery and boost productivity in warehouse management. It streamlines processes and ensures real-time monitoring of inventory, which enables companies to flexibly match demand from the market. In warehouses, the drone can also be used to scan barcode embossed inventories. The usage of RFID in inventory counting can eliminate human errors, human drudgery, reduce labour injuries and shorten downtown due to inventory checks. The drone can be used to inspect cargo ships, detect corrosion and damage.

IoT can vastly improve fleet efficiency and the safety of drivers during long journeys. Whether to move perishable items such as vegetables from the hinterland to urban centres or move fragile items such as glass or industrial products from factories to the urban centres or to move pharmaceutical products (vaccines), which need to be moved under controlled temperature and humidity to the vaccinating centres, IoT with the help of sensory tags (RFID) and Near Field Communications (NFC) technology can help the logistic industry to address these challenges and ensure condition monitoring of food products and medicine.

Thanks to GPS, geolocation tools and advanced security, IoT enables transporters (fleet) to track the movement of shipments from warehouses to the ultimate destination. In case the truck changes the route, the system can remotely shut the consignment and prevent cargo theft. In case of movement of fragile material or perishable items, IoT can detect any anomaly in the standard parameter of in-transit products and instantly convey to the truck drivers to take remedial action to minimise loss or save the shipment. It can also guide truck drivers to minimise unexpected delays and losses due to poor weather or unsafe roads, or traffic jam. IoT ensures optimum utilisation of space in the container, rationalisation of the route across all business units, creates fleet efficiencies, improves fuel economy, reduces deadhead miles, provides on-time delivery of shipments and also reduce air pollution in the nearby areas. Predictive maintenance and condition-based maintenance avoid unexpected malfunctions and address common truck breakdown problems, which reduces risks and downtime. The infrared camera can monitor drivers’ fatigue level (pupil size and blink frequency) and use activated audio alarms and seat vibrations to ensure that drivers don’t lose attention on the road, thus prevent potential collisions. With block chain, sensors, and GPS trackers IoT can trace the entire product life cycle of products from the warehouses to the consumer-end and ensure supply chain security, (theft or cyber-attack), transparency and ensure quality and conditions of products (temperature, humidity) intact.

The application of IoT is not restricted to only surface transport segments but also applies to other segments of transportation such as inland water transport, international shipping and air freight transport. Similar to vehicles on roads, vehicles on the water are attached with sensing devices that monitor total load, speed of the motorboat, freeboard (the height of the water-based vehicle’s deck above the water level), the tidal wave height, water current speed and direction, and the weather condition to avoid devastating situations. In the Indian context, IOT can be beneficial to inland water transport, particularly in eastern India.

Many Indian companies have taken initiatives to address the growing need for robust IoT platforms in the logistic industry in India. In this context, SLS has designed Nebulea, an IoT platform to run any logistic IoT application, which shortens the delivery route, save time, reduce fuel consumption, enhance productivity and reduce operational cost.

The train of logistics industry runs on two parallel tracks: physical infrastructure and digital infrastructure. IoT is not a magic bullet that kills all the ills of the logistic industry. Without a concurrent improvement in basic physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure cannot compensate for the lacunae of physical infrastructure. Although IoT imparts huge transformation, it is not a panacea for the logistics industry.