5 track and trace technologies for the supply chain

Automatic track and trace for visibility and transparency in logistics

Different technologies for different use cases

There are different solutions to automate collecting updates in as much as possible. It enables to structure the messages to avoid discrepancies and misunderstandings. Those updates and data points can then propagate instantly within the organization and to the desired partners. The following 5 supply chain track and trace technologies have their own unique advantages and limitations. At any of the transportation stages, anyone with a pen and paper can write down an order details, or share it via email. But this type of traceability has little security, reliability and does not allow the rest of the team to be on the same page, leading a high error probability and challenging cooperation between parties.

 

One of the challenges for traceability, is standardizing the registered updates. The key aspect for tracking or tracing an item, good or substance is having a single reference or ID for each one to identify undoubtedly any product. This brief summary outlines the feasibility of 5 supply chain track and trace technologies used for different processes. How to calculate that return of investment is an interesting point for a different article. Let’s focus on the available options to track and trace shipments.

Barcodes & 2D codes, simple and effective identification

1D barcode track and trace technology
Sample of a Code-128 barcode

Cameras and barcode scanners can easily read this unique identification reference. The linear barcode or 1D barcodes were the first to appear. Those consisted of straight vertical lines of different widths and separations to represent a code. We can spot barcodes in most items we consume like in supermarkets and products packaging. Depending on the type of used 1D barcode, these can store alpha numeric values, only numbers or ASCII characters. Those barcodes could only contain a single code and it is a great solution to reference a product number, its type or category, the date of production, size and this type of references.

2D QR code track and trace technology
Sample 2D QR code

2 dimensional barcodes can contain more data. This type of barcode can contain a more variety of characters, in more quantity and hence provide much more flexibility. Simple geometric dots, squares and lines, shape the data matrix of 2D codes. This increase of managed data also requires having more data storage space to accommodate that data. On the other side, 2D codes are much more flexibly to cover different purposes. Most of the people are nowadays familiar with one of its types, the QR code. Most cameras of our smartphones can easily read the encoded information . QR codes add flexibility to registering updates and consuming stored data, which is an especially interesting aspect to enable collaborative logistics. 2D codes are smaller because concentrate more information, scanners can read them from any angle and 2D codes can support any ASCII value. These features bring more flexibility and reliability.

Printing barcodes is very easy at any stage of the supply chain. Then there a variety of scanning options available to read 1D and 2D barcodes. There are even some scanner capable of reading damaged or half ripped off codes. The requirement is to have direct line of sight with the code, and obviously the scanner to read it, which can be a portable handheld scanner or a fixed scanner. Barcodes advantage is its reduced size, portability, easy production and installation. On the other hand, barcodes require a dedicated infrastructure and shipments have to follow the defined flow of the goods. It will be challenging, if not impossible, to keep track of shipments diverted from the intended route or cargo flow. Nowadays, most people own a smartphone that can run a scanning app. This flexibility of use increases the possible use cases of barcodes as a supply chain track and trace technology.

RFID tags, automatic label reading

Representation of RFID label chip track and trace technology
A RFID circuit sample
RFID tags take the concept of barcodes to the next level by enabling automatic reading of the tags. RFID stands for radio-frequency identification. A RFID reader reads the saved information from the tag’s built-in radio circuit that transmits the data. It does not require direct line of sight between the reader and the tag, scanner can read many tags simultaneously.
The tag content data can be encrypted, and depending on the tag type is typically encoded in ASCII or hexadecimal characters. After using a tag, it is possible to rewrite them. Since RFID tags are very durable and resistant to shocks and environmental factors, reusing the tag in the next shipment is definitely an option. It is a great choice for defined cargo flows, such as tracking ins and outs to facilities like factories and warehouses.

 

The drawback of RFID tags is that it requires a costly infrastructure at each stage of the supply chain. Deviated shipments from the intended route require planning to assert if the new waypoints have RFID scanners to track and trace the tags. RFID isn’t flexible enough for dynamic routings, but it is a great supply chain track and trace technology for controlled delivery channels.

Satellite GPS tracking, for outdoors location

NASA GPS Satellite tracking technology
NASA GPS positioning Satellite
GPS connects by direct line of sight with a network of satellites to triangulate location. Currently, on the market there are available very accurate GPS trackers with 5m accuracy margin. Passive trackers are data loggers in which the user has to retrieve the information manually after using it, for example via USB in a computer. Active trackers push the measurements actively to a database at periodic intervals, for example using bluetooth or cellular technology. In the context of supply chains, GPS is a great solution to track trailers, wagons, containers and other moving assets. It provides excellent coverage internationally as long as the assets have direct exposure to the open sky.

 

GPS has very poor, if any at all, penetration of solid surfaces. It is not possible to collect measurement from within buildings or structures. Also, active GPS trackers are reliant on the network availability to transmit the measurements. For international transports roaming should be in place before starting the journey, if not the connectivity can be lost or the network costs can be expensive. For indoor tracking of assets such as reach trucks and warehouse equipment, bluetooth trackers and beacons are a better option. Read more about GPS and how it is used in supply chains here.

IoT tracking, conditions and location of moving assets

eShell, Shellock's IoT device
The eShell, Shellock's IoT device

GPS tracking offer a great solution, but further sensors, tracking accuracy and the capability to manage the trackers remotely was lacking. These type of trackers offer better connectivity and overcome the limitations of regular trackers. Because of this connectivity, are called Internet of Things technology or simply by its acronym IoT tracker. These is the solution that potentially can offer the most amount of environmental data. Depending on the built-in sensors, different parameters can be read such as temperature, motion, shocks, light detection and humidity among others.

 

IoT devices emit updates at the configured time frequency without the need for a reader or scanner. Most devices can be configured remotely to accommodate to different needs in various stages of a transport. Collected data enriches external traceability records independently of the mean of transportation. IoT tracking plays a pivotal role among shipments track and trace technologies because because updates can be received remotely independently of the location of the asset. 

 

On the other hand, the amount of shipped features and the can be costly. In some cases it might require a longer time to have positive return of the investment. To operate, these devices rely on a built-in battery or a similar power source, which can limit its deployment for tracking longer journeys. Lastly, they are dependant of having connectivity to their network. For example some IoT devices rely on telephone networks such as 4G and 5G, or other networks developed specifically for this technology.  IoT trackers can lose connection when transiting areas with bad coverage, or suffer the faraday cage effect, like IoT trackers inside shipping containers. Read more about IoT track and trace technology use cases here.

Blockchain, a tamperproof traceability record

Representation of blockchain nodes traceability technology
Representation of blockchain nodes

Blockchain is the newest technology to gain relevance, and rightly so. Blockchain acts as a decentralized ledger that records in a verifiable and tamperproof way the transactions among the different parties that participate in a process. Precisely, this security makes it an interesting solution that can combine data from the presented 5 supply chain track and trace technologies. There is no limit on the amount of transactions or event types to register. It enables saving all the product or process events and transactions in a secure and transparent manner. Because the registered information is verifiable and tamperproof, it eliminates the need of third parties providing authorizations, certificates and files to support or approve transactions. 

 

Smart contracts make use of blockchain to record the details of a transaction, and the trigger conditions. By knowing beforehand the trigger criteria of a contract, such as payment received, contract signed or goods delivered at place, smart contracts safely automate the execution. Sample use cases include financing and execution of payments after meeting the criteria, paying at delivery, and verifying the chain of custody and journey of a shipment or asset throughout the supply chain.

 

 

Due to its tamperproof nature, if a party notices that an event goes against its interests or there is any error in the contract, it is very difficult and costly to amend the contract. In the same fashion,poorly designed contracts with vulnerabilities will be challenging to fix. Flaws in contract design might expose the users to hackers or malicious users. The good part is that the content is tamperproof, and by carefully designing the contracts avoid the mentioned weakness.