From citrus fruit for supermarkets to car parts for the automotive industry, to get great quality products to their customers all over the world on time, shipping companies need to have clear information on the goods' condition throughout the journey.
And exactly that is possible with Deutsche Telekom's help. In a pilot test, the company connected the containers of the Deutsche Afrika-Linien (DAL) with an M2M solution. DAL ships mainly sail into harbors in Europe, eastern and southern Africa and around the Indian ocean. They land around 120,000 containers per year. On average each container travels 70,000 km over that period. Giant container ships often sail for weeks at a time. But traditional shipping lines' customers still want as much reassurance as possible when planning their "just in time" production processes. When exactly will the ship reach its destination? Have the containers been opened without authorization? Have they tipped over or fallen from a great height en route, potentially damaging the goods?
Smart containers are in touch over the mobile network
By connecting the containers to the network using an M2M solution and using sensor technology they can respond to these questions several times per day, both before and after maritime shipping, if desired. This is how it works: a so-called smart container device is installed at the front of the container, near the door. It consists of a GPS sensor for localization and five other senors that record the door being opened, impacts, inclination, temperature and battery voltage. The smart container device triggers an alert if the device is deactivated without authorization or even destroyed.
All of the information from a single source
During shipment the sensor data are transmitted via a Deutsche Telekom SIM card. Roaming partners around the globe and a special M2M rate plan ensure reliable data transmission at calculable costs. The robust smart container device also features Hirschman Car Solutions' extremely high performance antenna technology – it transmits the data onto a secure mobile network. The frequency of data transmissions can be individually pre-configured. Christoph von Reith, DAL Junior Superintendent explains: "Hourly data transmission makes sense as soon as a ship is in the vicinity of the harbor. Is the container still on the ship? Is it at customs in Cape Town or has it already been loaded onto a truck for the rest of its journey? Our customers now get all of the information they need from a single source at every stage of the value chain."
Information from the Cloud of Things
The sensor data are transmitted to the secure Deutsche Telekom Cloud where they are stored and analyzed. DAL can access its container data on a computer, tablet or smartphone anytime, anywhere using nothing more complicated than a web browser. The platform's investment costs are easy to calculate and, with the Cloud of Things, depend on the number of connected devices. Special M2M data rate plans ensure the operating costs are clear. Because the data flows through Deutsche Telekom's secure mobile network, shipping companies do not have to make costly upgrades to their own IT infrastructure. The software required for this solution was customized specifically to meet DAL's needs. For example, it triggers an alert if a container leaves its pre-set route. This makes it possible to monitor the goods' location in real time and, potentially, to prevent theft.
Help for customs
The system also triggers an alert when thieves or smugglers open the container without authorization. Containers are sealed, of course, but the seal is just stuck on and is easy to falsify. Customs authorities often do not notice unauthorized access and allow the goods into the country. But the smart container device's door sensor can tell if a container has been opened without authorization. This way, based on the sensor data, customs authorities can either target the container for interception and inspection or wave it through quickly.
Damaged container – who picks up the bill?
DAL can set individual threshold values for each shipment regarding, for example, how much the container is permitted to tilt before its contents are damaged. If the container falls or tilts more than the threshold value a shock sensor alert sounds. A quick glance at the software is enough: The data collected by the shock and tilt sensors make it possible to determine where damage occurred in the supply chain. Once the container is opened, if the goods are actually damaged it is easy to establish who should be held responsible. If there is a dispute, liability is easier to prove, saving money.
Container management is becoming more efficient
DAL can also put the M2M solution to good use when it comes to container service and maintenance: Currently every container goes to the workshop for maintenance and, where required, repair after each use. But using the sensor data, the Hamburg-based shipping company can now better assess whether a container is damaged or just requires basic maintenance before being sent back out to sea. Moreover, DAL can keep an eye on its containers, it knows exactly where in the world they are and where they can best be used next. This allows it to manage its containers even more efficiently, saving time and money.