Implementing the Internet of Things in Logistics and Transportation

Charlie Key
Charlie Key | 5 minute read

In a world where an avid reader can order the latest hardcover bestseller from Amazon on Tuesday and crack the book's spine on Wednesday, it's hard to believe that the transportation and logistics industries have room for improvement. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) offers the opportunity to gather tremendous amounts of data. More importantly the ability to apply that data for better security, faster shipping, enhanced supply chain management, and improved processes.

Scanning a barcode on a package to automatically take inventory for asset tracking supply chain.

In logistics and transportation, the Internet of Things (and, more specifically, the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT) can create machine to machine connections that enable vehicles, packages, containers, loading equipment, and other devices and assets to communicate with one another throughout the supply chain. Human beings don't have to manually log information when smart devices can trap that data automatically. So how will tomorrow's thought leaders implement the IoT in logistics and transportation?

Creating Secure Transportation Processes

Huffington Post staff writer James Cave reported in 2014 that of the five or six million shipping containers that cross open waters at any given time, thousands wind up at the bottom of the ocean. An enormous wave crashes over a shipping vessel and suddenly, a big metal container becomes a host for algae and coral growth instead of a purveyor of consumer merchandise or industrial equipment.

Losses at sea aren't the only concern for the transportation industry, either. Transport Security, Inc., reveals that cargo truck theft resulted in $18 million in losses during Q4 of 2014 alone. Assuming losses remained consistent throughout the year, the transportation industry might have lost upwards of $72 million in cargo to theft. 

Not only do cargo thefts create economic losses, but they also endanger human lives and put companies out of business. The Internet of Things could drastically reduce these losses.

For instance, sensor technology becomes more accurate and more affordable every year. Trucking and shipping companies can use sensors to identify vehicles that veer off their routes or stop for long periods of time. Smaller sensors (often as thin as a sheet of paper) attached to containers can help transportation companies and authorities track stolen property, which increases the chances of recovery.

Geolocation technology can help shipping companies keep track of cargo from the moment it leaves the warehouse. Even if a company cannot recover lost cargo, they can analyze the situation and determine risk factors that they should avoid in the future.

Over the next several decades, the transportation industry will benefit from complex locks that only open when conditions meet specified criteria. Additionally, telematics, big data, and smart devices will help prevent fuel theft and other ancillary losses on the road through monitors and sensors.

Five white trucks in a line transporting cargo.


Maintaining Vehicles and Equipment

Smart technology automates many aspects of fleet management and maintenance. Just as consumer vehicles come with high-tech features like stability control and tire pressure monitoring systems, cargo trucks will benefit from app-controlled maintenance alerts that prevent costly breakdowns. This, in turn, will keep truck drivers and their fellow motorists safe.

Additionally, smart devices can learn driver behaviors and communicate data to fleet managers. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity ensure that all points in the logistics industry stay connected and that valuable data gets backed up to the cloud. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication also helps coordinate logistics events like pick-ups, drop-offs, and other points along the supply chain.

All of these devices and strategies benefit everyone from the warehousing employees to the end user. Trucking and shipping companies can create more accurate pricing structures and increase the speed with which they deliver shipments. Each cog in the machine works together instead of separately, which results in high-level coordination and precision.

Connecting Devices to Provide Real-Time Data

Transportation, logistics, and manufacturing companies have used telematics for years to generate data and make process improvements. IoT, however, introduces new ways to gain access to big data instantly and to apply it directly thereafter.

Until now, companies have struggled to harness the power behind big data. Collecting the data served as the first hurdle, but analyzing and applying it in a useful way has proven more difficult. However, IoT allows transportation and logistics companies to collect real-time data from trucks and other equipment so they can ascertain performance levels, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), unsafe conditions, and optimization possibilities.

Large cargo ship transporting shipments across the ocean.This extends to customer care, as well. If sensors on cargo shipments destined for retail or food service outlets can communicate with shipping and logistics professionals, it's possible to determine the ideal frequency and timing of shipments to meet customer demand. This improves the customer's experience, reduces waste, and maximizes revenue for every step on the supply chain.

Use cases often explore ways that connected devices relate to operational efficiency. Wind River recently released a report that describes the role of positive train control (PTC) systems in transportation operational management. The report discusses the use of cloud-based data storage processes that allow users to track equipment in real time as well as to schedule preventive maintenance. In effect, the IoT applications extend beyond real-time data transmissions to forward-thinking applications that allow companies to anticipate problems before they occur.

Promoting Enhanced Resource Management

Every industry, from transportation and logistics to manufacturing and engineering, wants to conserve resources to save money, improve efficiency, and reduce that industry's impact on the environment. The IoT can help transportation and logistics companies identify areas of ineffective resource management.

Smart grids have already begun to change the way homes use electricity in big cities. A smart meter collects copious amounts of data about a location's energy usage and communicates that data to the energy company. Service providers can vary their rate structures based on environmental conditions and disable electrical or natural gas service remotely.

Similar technology could improve transportation processes. Smart meters attached to truck, ship, and airliner fuel tanks can help transportation companies understand how and why fuel consumption changes. They can then conserve their energy resources and save money.

Similarly, smart technology can help companies use their financial resources more effectively. They can collect data concerning every transaction they initiate and identify areas where they are unnecessarily hemorrhaging money.

Improving Transportation Infrastructures

Bridges deteriorate, roads break down, and traffic clogs busy highways. The Internet of Things offers exciting opportunities to improve urban infrastructure and to promote faster transportation. TechRepublic senior editor Teena Hammond reports that several metropolises — primarily in Europe — have adopted "smart city" strategies to reduce congestion and improve infrastructure.

Highways and bridges overlapping in a modern Smart City.In Barcelona, Copenhagen, and other early-adopter cities, connected devices allow traffic lights, parking garages, and other elements of the infrastructure to communicate. Sensors in Barcelona street lights, for example, tell drivers where they can find empty parking spaces. According to Hammond, studies have shown that 30 percent of traffic congestion issues trace back to parking problems, so these sensors allow motorists to reach their destinations faster.

Smart sensors are also in use on bridges. They alert the appropriate authorities when bridge conditions deteriorate and could pose public safety dangers. That same technology could allow the Internet of Things to link highways, overpasses, underpasses, and other elements of city infrastructure so unsafe road conditions no longer put drivers at risk. If the infrastructure can communicate with moving vehicles, the applications become infinitely more diverse.

The Internet of Things doesn't just inform a single use case or initiative. It impacts every aspect of transportation and logistics and can revolutionize the ways in which companies move cargo from one place to another. Although thought leaders don't know how the IoT will look in 50 years, current analysis suggests that tomorrow's shipping and receiving processes will operate far more efficiently than they do today.

Ideas on other ways IoT is transforming Transportation and Logistics? Share your thoughts in our comments below.