Martina Hammer

The gold nuggets in the supply chain: a tracker that makes shipping pallets smart

  • Deutsche Telekom, together with Fraunhofer IML and EPAL launch 500 smart pallets on the market
  • Finding lost and stolen shipments 
  • Tracking pallets live at the International Supply Chain Conference 

The Internet of Things is now ready for massive use in supply chain management. Deutsche Telekom, the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (Fraunhofer IML, for short) and the European Pallet Association (EPAL) have put the world’s first 500 intelligent pallets into real-life operation. 

Cargo losses and delays are two of the two perennial challenges facing the supply chain business. Theft of shipments costs the business billions of euros every year. The absence or inaccuracy of information means that 30 percent of all shipments fail to reach their destination on time. Smart networked pallets are the latest new nuggets of data gold in the supply chain. Deutsche Telekom, the Fraunhofer IML and EPAL are showcasing a new generation of standardized pallets at the International Supply Chain Conference. In future, businesses will be in a position to better monitor the movements of their goods on water, rail and asphalt using smart pallets.

“With the introduction of smart pallets, EPAL is entering a new era. The decisive factor in our decision to participate was the need to secure our investment through the quality and availability of data. Only with such information at our fingertips can we reliably offer our customers added value and a robust business model,” comments Ingo Mönke, Chairman of GPAL, the German branch of the European Pallet Association, e.V.

Locating cargoes fast and protecting them from thieves 

The small, inexpensive tracker was developed in Deutsche Telekom’s Open IoT Labs at the Fraunhofer IML. It was there too that the trackers were embedded into 500 of EPAL’s pallets. The device, dubbed the Low-Cost Tracker, can detect its own position, as well as being able to track any movements, impacts and changes in temperature. As well as its location, the waterproof sensor detects impacts, acceleration forces and the temperature of each pallet. The pallet reports its status whenever there is a deviation from plan, i.e. if it senses any unexpected shaking or temperature fluctuations. It passes its data updates automatically back to a dedicated portal. 

Data: the new currency of the supply chain 

The tracker’s robust and compact design makes it easy to embed into virtually any load carrier. Data exchange takes place using Deutsche Telekom’s network for machines and sensors, which is referred to in specialist circles as NarrowBand IoT (or NB IoT for short). The unique features of this narrow-band technology makes it an ideal pathway for the Internet of Things. It opens out a wireless future that promises more secure, more stable and more robust connectivity that works practically anywhere. Among the benefits of the new technology are its low energy consumption, its low cost and its excellent penetration through buildings. It has a battery life of up to five years. On top of all that, the fact that it uses licensed spectrum and 3GPP standardization gives the system security conforming to LTE norms. That constitutes an important step forward into the world of 5G. NB IoT’s worldwide roaming capacity is becoming an increasingly important factor.

Experts estimate that over a billion devices will be entering the Internet of Things every year for the next few years. Many such devices will be deployed for use in the transport and logistics industry. The tiny devices on pallets, containers and packaging will soon be transmitting billions of status messages. They will also be able to identify their location and communicate with one another autonomously. 
“The Low-Cost Tracker makes load carriers smart, allowing us to extract nuggets of data gold for the supply chain industry. That’s set to be their decisive advantage against the competition in the supply chain industry. If the technology is going to be capable of scaling up into the billions, a worldwide standard involving a secure certification and authentication mechanism is going to be essential – using SIM cards, for example – along with a long-term guarantee of stable networks, competitive tariffs and flat rates. And the only technology that can achieve that at the moment is NB IoT,” says Prof. Michael ten Hompel, head of the Fraunhofer IML. 

The project partners will be showcasing live for the first time how smart pallets move around the world at Stand B/05 in the Bellevue Room at the International Supply Chain Conference organized by the Bundesvereinigung Logistik (BVL) from October 17 to 19, 2018 in Berlin.

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