Real-time supply chain tracking demands flexible, reliable connectivity, ensuring access to live sensor data, crucial to perishable or temperature-controlled assets. As a greater number of 2G (GSM) and 3G cellular networks march toward sunset – steadily becoming obsolete with the development of 4G LTE and 5G technologies – logistics operators must evolve or face connectivity downtime that can devastate cold chain cargo tracking. Does this mean a monumental jump to the 4G or 5G bandwidths common to smartphones and other cellular devices? That is not likely or necessary. A smarter strategy capitalizes on emerging low power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies such as Category M (Cat-M) or Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT). These options have evolved from 4G LTE but are designed for the LPWAN environment. Today, their ready integration into building block Internet of Things (IoT) platforms provides interoperability with existing 2G/3G frameworks and keeps asset tracking systems poised for next generation cellular options.
Why not 5G?
The global nature of supply chains is a large part of the connectivity challenge. Even as 2G operations have been broadly sunset worldwide, there are regions still not confirming a planned timeline. Europe is predominantly 2G-centric; even as some operators have closed or are closing their GSM operations, a number of European telecoms have indicated 2G may outlast their 3G systems. The thinking is that GSM systems are ideal for supporting broad voice coverage as well as legacy operations such as machine-to-machine communications, particularly as 4G LTE/5G supplants 3G.
For example, even if rolled out globally, high-speed 5G would be less suitable than narrowband technologies for asset tracking applications. Its cost is significantly prohibitive compared to Cat-M or NB-IoT, and its feature set is less aligned to cold chain demands due to high requirements for memory and battery power. Consider that real-time trackers don’t necessarily need to transmit big data at lightning speeds – it’s more about frequent transmission of smaller data packets from a range of critical sensors. These small data transmissions come in at regular intervals and monitor factors such as location, temperature, humidity and more, all along the cold chain. Cat-M and NB-IoT are optimized for this type of data transmission, providing a cost-effective LPWAN option that balances price and performance.
Flexible IoT building blocks accelerate design
Design cycles from 12-18 months are common for mobile IoT solutions developed from the ground up. It is not only a lengthy process, but also one that includes costly certifications as OEMs and integrators move to new low power, low bandwidth networks. Building block solutions may provide a faster option, operating as flexible, turnkey hardware platforms. Equipped with SIM card and data plan, these connectivity platforms simplify device management and include optional capabilities such as management portals.
Building blocks simplify the overall landscape by providing smarter and more strategic options to developers. For example, OEMs can upgrade existing devices with increased longevity. Entities with well-established platforms or committed airtime contracts can tap into just the hardware element of the building block solution, accelerating future deployments and integrating long-life options such as Cat-M support. Alternatively, OEMs can also streamline development of full, next generation connectivity solutions with an effective “build vs. buy” decision.
Enabling predictive capabilities drives a more competitive cold chain
Beyond its inherent benefits, connectivity also serves as the powerhouse behind other asset tracking imperatives. Close tracking of cold chain operations prevents spoilage, theft and human error through automated processes that represent a huge leap over manual operations. Organizing a truck roll with a field engineer to solve a problem after it has occurred is avoidable and comes at a huge cost. If operators are in the dark about logistical or technical issues until a shipment reaches its destination, goods could be spoiled by light or vaccines destroyed by temperature.
Predictive capabilities help logistics operators understand consistent issues, keeping an even closer oversight on perishable assets and reducing losses and maintenance needs in real time. Cold chain factors are ideally controlled via remote operations or updates, with alerts and triggers set to pertinent thresholds, warning operators of dangers or issues that arise as they happen. Because triggers and alerts vary greatly from cold chain application to application, flexible configuration is critical to tracking behaviors and reacting to anomalies.
Any behavior of a predictable nature can be programmed to trigger an alert and some type of reaction or intervention. In the cold chain, the behavior may relate to driving habits, timing, temperatures, light or even routes. Collecting a perishable item such as produce from a warehouse, transporting it to stores in various locations – these activities can be monitored from point to point to ensure that temperature, humidity and overall condition of the goods remains stable at each point of that journey. Logistics operators are monitoring not just the produce but also the time elapsed for its journey, the expected time of arrival at each site, predicted time for completion of deliveries, and the anticipated return time of the vehicle itself.
Similar monitoring capabilities can also avert disaster in connectivity operations. An operator with 10,000 units out in the field may see a deployed device (or group of devices) start churning a huge amount of data – in direct conflict with its usual or predicted activities as well as its contracted data plan. With real-time monitoring, operators can intervene immediately and avoid the shock of a data bill created by rogue devices.
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Smart cellular strategies focus on longevity
Ultimately, all European regions will phase out 2G technology – the current expected timeline is 2025. This may be at odds with devices in the field, some with battery performance enabling lifecycles of a decade or more. Ideally, these devices must be designed to be interoperable – supporting 2G now and readily able to shift protocols when new options such as Cat-M support are activated by network operators. With this approach, OEMs are poised for both longevity and reduced cost, avoiding the need for on-site system retrofits or product redesigns.
Technology advances emerging over the next 3-7 years will challenge OEMs and integrators. Mobile IoT systems face rapid change, and it is wise to keep eyes on the future, particularly due to the increasingly global of the supply chain. Building block solutions will play a critical role – not only enabling next generation connectivity, but also ensuring OEM focus remains on developing smart and competitive asset tracking applications.