Track & Trace Vs Real-Time Monitoring

Published by Emeli Zuno on

GPS tracking

If you have come across modern technology solutions such as RFID, GPS, or Data Loggers, then it will be easier for you to understand how “Tracking, Tracing and Real-Time Monitoring” operate in the supply chain industry.  These terms commonly may be used interchangeably, but they are not the same.  It is important to determine how these terms relate to supply chain or asset visibility and find out which is essential for a particular business.

Whether one is managing a firm’s assets, or working in the supply chain and logistics sector, it is likely that the use of GPS or RFID based visibility solutions can be used to control goods and assets. 

Defining “Track and Trace”

The term “traceability” is defined as the ability to track the origin, processing history, distribution, and location of goods. As stated in the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS) Dictionary, traceability has two aspects. First is that it enables the current location of a shipment to be assessed; second is that it records and tracks the parts, processes, and materials utilized in production through the help of lot or serial numbers. 

In the logistics industry, the word “track” refers to the process of following the route of something which can be a shipment, asset, or even the trail of a specific package. On the other hand, “trace” applies to the process of following a trail that was left behind by the movement of a shipment or an asset  

What makes “tracking” different from “tracing,” and why is it important to know?

In “tracking,” the ultimate goal is to know where shipments or assets are going, and then follow the trail in order to ensure that shipments reach the specified location.  In “tracing,” the main objective is to follow the trail of a shipment to identify events that took place along its way. Tracing will reveal the actual end destination of shipments or assets.  With these concepts in mind, we can then divide “Tracking and Tracing” into two parts – forward and backwards respectively. These two processes allow the easy identification of problem areas in the shipping process. 

Basic architecture for tracking and tracing network

Despite having drawbacks, Track and Trace technology is still a logical step for the logistics industry.  Logistics businesses operating have a need to stay updated on their shipments’ locations at any given time. Consumers want to be informed, as they need to track the course their goods take.  At the moment, Track and Trace technology covers RFID, GPS, and EPOS, all of which are aimed at enhancing the productivity output and efficiency of the supply chain during its whole life cycle.    

Generic technology behind the tracking and tracing network

As the industrial sector rapidly adopts digital methods, companies have started to implement them to achieve transparency in the supply chain.

The state-of-the-art technology that we have today, along with the progress that we are making, all aims at one thing, which is the keystone to supply chain management – to provide transparency.

Tony Hard, the Managing Director of Daylight Supply Chain Servicer

Track and Trace solutions improve knowledge and management of the entire supply chain process: from the raw materials and parts suppliers through the internal process and warehousing, up to the end customers.

Supply chain manufacturing and processing modernization

Barcodes

Barcodes are coded labels placed on the surface of goods and assets and are read by a scanning device. This traditional “Track and Trace” technology required exhaustive working hours for implementation.  Advances in technology, however, have upgraded barcode methods. With the constant demand and ever-growing expectations of consumers for instant gratification, companies are rushing to make their supply chain management more capable than ever.

The process of barcode scanning has made an impact on almost every aspect of supply chain management. The implementation of barcodes enables manufacturers and distributors to accelerate the business integration process in supply chain management – making it simpler and more efficient.  In addition, barcodes are considered an effective process for tracking products, thus, reducing errors.  The technology has a variety of advantages, such as being cost-effective, easy to operate, and precise.  These advantages make barcodes common in supply chains across the world.  Adopting barcode technology in inventory practices assists in operating with higher warehouse efficiency and lower inventory on hand.

In what other ways can barcodes improve supply chain management?

Barcodes are often ignored as a method for cost-cutting and saving time, when in fact, they are a beneficial and feasible choice for companies searching for ways to improve efficiency and reduce expenses.

The true power of the barcode scanning process in supply chains arises from its role in allowing standard formats and supporting a set of data elements to share invariable and real-time information among trading partners.

Philip Wright, from DHL Supply Chain Europe

Improved stock visibility and cutting waste

Barcoding all equipment, goods and supplies makes it more convenient to facilitate purchasing decisions while eliminating over-ordering.  More detailed and accurate lists available stock, including which are approaching their expiry dates and need to be used up.  With this data, inventory management can also emphasize variations in prices paid for each item.  

Barcodes enable stock visibility, especially for supplies used in the healthcare industry, connected to automated re-ordering systems. This fosters trust and confidence, as essential items will be available when needed.

Enhanced safety and compliance

Enhanced safety is a key focus for the pharmaceutical supply chain.  In the healthcare industry, it is vital for drugs to match the patients, because one wrong move can instantly put a patient’s life in danger.  With barcode technology, it will be much easier to guarantee that patients are receiving exactly what they require, making dreadful errors a thing of the past.

Improved inventory management

Barcodes make it possible to accurately track inventory, leading to a reduction in inventory levels. With barcodes and automated inventory management systems, the location of goods, items or equipment can be easily tracked, minimizing time spent searching for them, and money spent replacing lost inventory. This saves valuable hours currently spent on manually re-ordering equipment or supplies

RFID

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), is the use of radio waves to read, secure and interact with data encoded in RFID tags or smart labels.  It is similar to barcoding. The information stored within a tag or label is captured by a device that stores it in a database. RFID, however,  has a significant advantage over systems that utilize barcode asset tracking software.  The most remarkable is that RFID tags do not always need direct line-of-sight to initiate interaction, unlike barcodes, which have to be positioned relatively closely to a scanner.  Another advantage is that RFID can scan more than one item at a time.   

Using an RFID tag is an easy way to assign a specific identity to an object. In addition, it does not need a power source and can be as small as a pea. RFID devices can be effortlessly integrated almost anywhere. 

RFID applied in the supply chain

RFID in the supply chain acts as a major component in improving product visibility, right from the point of manufacturing, through the supply chain, and, most essentially, from the backroom to the floor, and eventually to the exit door.

Optimizing the supply chain process requires precise verification and tracking of goods, as well as information about the inventory of a company, its location, budget and condition.

Inventory Management

Inventory management involves several aspects such as monitoring, administering, controlling, storing, and using materials for the sales of a product.  Due to a number of components operating in inventory management, inaccuracy becomes inevitable and common. Fortunately, RFID tags can improve inventory management as they have the capability to read through an item. Hence, a mismatch between the inventory data and the actual number of products can be avoided. Inventory accuracy and visibility can also be drastically enhanced, as RFID can track distributed goods accurately in real-time, speed the workflow, and even reduce excess inventory.

Warehouse Management

Warehouses are basically areas where products received from suppliers are stored. 

RFID is a key technology that supports warehouse management systems to simplify supply chain with improved product integrity. With RFID, regularly occurring tasks during the receiving and shipping processes can be automated. On top of that, RFID also increases the efficiency of recognition and verification of activities and reduces human errors without compromising output quality. Supply chains now have improved information flow along with improved material flow.

Retail Sector

Businesses in the retail sector have started to revolutionize their operations with RFID technology. Wal-Mart, one of the behemoths in the retail sector, is experimenting with RFID tags to meet high levels of consumer demand. With RFID, improved product visibility in the retail inventory leads to better inventory control and customer satisfaction. This is extremely relevant in larger stores whose customers are searching for products online to determine which store has current stock for sale. 

RFID offers improved product identification through distinctive storage of identification numbers.  Moreover, RFID helps in lessening the checkout times of customers as it allows shoppers to scan the entire content of a cart without picking up a single item.  Lastly, it helps in progressive pricing, theft reduction, and better tracking of employees.

GPS Tracking

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and location data enable products and people to be tracked. At any point it is easy to determine where a product is, at what speed it is moving, and how long it will take to reach a specific destination.

Tracking bulky shipments of goods and raw materials transported in huge containers can be facilitated with GPS, enhancing competitiveness, as a great deal of pressure is being placed on carriers to improve efficiencies, and cost controls to increase customer satisfaction.  

GPS supply chain benefits 

Improved Fleet Management

GPS provides a direct line of communication with fleet vehicles, so that adjustments can be made to enhance efficiencies, time of arrival, and more.

Increased Driver Safety and Performance

The primary responsibility of moving goods and shipments from one point to another may still fall on human drivers, even if self-driving and autonomous vehicles are developed as a primary means of transport.  This also means that their safety, actions, and behavior are essential.  Untracked driver error can be costly for businesses, as goods will be lost, the company’s reputation will be stained, and both tools and resources will be damaged.

A GPS tracker urges drivers to be cautious and responsible. If they don’t comply, the data provides the evidence to reprimand them. Loyalty systems can be implemented through use of this technology to track employee skill levels. Incentives can be provided to drivers exceeding satisfactory performance requirements.

Better Security

In every transportation, distribution, and logistics process, much is on the line. If a vehicle, an entire cargo, or even just part of a shipment is stolen, the losses will be more than just the value of the lost items. The business reputation will suffer, customers and clients will lose money, and drivers’ and employees’ safety may be at risk.

Advanced GPS can be automated to send warning signals when something wrong occurs, which can provide enough time to assess the situation and take action when something unexpected happens.  Early, quick responses to perceived threats mean  less resulting damage.

Enhanced Operational Productivity

Modern GPS systems are deeply machine-driven, meaning that they do not require constant human monitoring. Management can receive notifications and alerts when something calls for their attention. This setup reduces human monitoring time while allowing direct micro-management opportunities where more knowledgeable and specified actions are required.  

This technology provides opportunities for drivers to improve their efficiency and experience. With GPS, they will be able to track details about their routes such as congested areas, nearby accidents, and detour sites. It will help them improve the way they drive.  

Furthermore, there will be fewer expenditures on the administrative level, as the vehicle-tracking systems and tools provide information and statistics that office personnel traditionally would be tasked with reporting.

Optimized Customer Service

Needless to say, increased productivity, faster arrival times, and risk-free driving habits all promote improved customer service. Drivers are more likely to arrive on time with a GPS system. Extra detail regarding their shipments can be provided to clients, including accurate delivery schedules.

With advanced GPS systems, new solutions to arising challenges can be devised.  For instance, a freight courier could track down a particular shipment and allow anxious customers to pick it up, by meeting the driver at a certain place. Shipment errors can more quickly be detected, allowing for faster responses, such as switching couriers or changing the end destination.

More Accurate Cost Analysis

It is essential to minimize the use of company vehicles to reduce fuel consumption.  When drivers are on the open road, they should take the most efficient route possible, to reduce refueling costs along the way.

GPS and vehicle-tracking tools can help achieve this. Monitoring for bad habits, unnecessary distances, and costs allow you to adjustments for specific goals. If drivers refuel as infrequently as possible, the exact amount of fuel required for a trip can be calculated. Specific, efficient directions can be provided to the driver. 

Identifying “Real-Time Monitoring”

When used within the supply chain sector, monitoring can be defined as the observation and management of all operational activities and controls of the supply chain itself.

In the visibility framework, monitoring becomes similar to a biological function. Think of a biological function, such as the heart rate. Humans don’t use “track and trace” to examine heart rates, because they are something that is always measured “live” or in “real-time.” This concept also applies to blood pressure, brain waves, or any other organic function.  “Real-time” relates to the capability to respond to something at such short notice that the response occurs almost as the event is happening.  

The difference between “track and tracing” and “monitoring” comes down to the fact that “track and tracing,” or even “real-time track and tracing,” is generally used when there is only one parameter being tracked in real-time or later time, while “monitoring” is used for one or more variables, that are simultaneously monitored live or in real-time. An individual’s pulse, heart rate, blood pressure, and other “vital stats” can be monitored altogether. The body’s vital stats always fall under real-time monitoring because unexpected events requiring immediate or long term responses can happen anytime.

Equally, when the term “monitoring” is used in the visibility context of goods or assets, one or more parameters can be monitored in real-time. For instance, the location of a shipment alone or its location can be monitored, together with its temperature and condition.

To avoid any confusion, always keep in mind the two rules for when monitoring is used to identify a visibility solution: (1) Monitoring always happens live or in real-time. (2) Monitoring can be applied to one or more parameters simultaneously. If IoT solution suppliers or vendors offer a solution that “monitors,” ask how many parameters are applied and whether they are in real-time. If not, then the word “monitor” is being used improperly.

How important is real-time monitoring in the supply chain?

In the supply chain, during shipment, goods are at risk of being damaged or compromised due to the many hours of movement. This could result in a loss of profit, and more significantly, the loss of product integrity and customer trust.

With the rising population and evolving customer demands (e.g. variety, increasing consumption, progressing needs, and preference), developments in warehouse and logistics industries have also accelerated. As the world’s economic situation evolves, logistics industries are expected to grow as well. These advances require continual, faster movement, which may then result in potential damages to goods, equipment, and supplies.

For that reason, the logistics industry is starting to shift more of their attention to the prevention and minimization of damages to goods in transport. To attain this goal, start with analysis and real-time monitoring. These methods, trace each phase of the delivery process and identify any potentially delicate and hazard points. The focus here will be placed largely on the steps and processes instead of the end products or results. This is about prevention of hazards, rather than an assessment of the outputs. This can apply to the supply chain to recue process losses and damages.  By shifting the focus to monitoring and prevention, damages and defects are easily recognizable. The “real-time monitoring” becomes a more reactive and reliable approach, as manual and visual inspections do not always immediately reveal potential problems. Real-time monitoring is all about being proactive by preventing unnecessary scenarios from happening in the first place.  

In this way, we can instantly advise or take corrective actions (if needed) long before shipments reach their destinations. By utilizing real-time data to determine the impacts on goods, alerts can be sent to the people in charge of the deliveries about any irregularities, making immediate adjustments possible. Waiting time for correction actions is greatly reduced, and more significantly, managers would be notified firsthand if shipments have been compromised.  Manual inspection of goods following arrival remains essential, but with data gathered from the “real-time monitoring” system, more immediate, detailed information about the condition of goods is available. 

Understanding Real-Time Monitoring Technologies

Until recently, developments in supply chain monitoring occurred as part of the constant advance of technologies, allowing supply chains to have more options and opportunities for monitoring and tracking of shipments.

BLE Beacons/Tags

Active RFID and GPS both provide new approaches and strong opportunities in logistics, warehousing, and distribution. The growing use of Bluetooth tags is extending the sector as affordable, versatile, and easy to implement. These tags make it possible for companies previously unable to afford them, to utilize asset tracking solutions.

BLE Beacons/Tags and how they become a monitoring solution

BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. These beacons (which are also referred to as BLE tags) are set to replace RFID. BLE works in a manner similar to RFID, but possess essential advantages including cost, long battery-life of beacon/tags, and the ability to scan data with a smartphone. BLE has a major advantage over RFID, as it has a low-energy data transmission protocol, which enables BLE beacons to collect and transmit status data. This makes beacons more capable of tracing multiple parameters for shipments, assets, inventories, packages, and more.   

All BLEs require a hotspot gateway such as mobile phones or GSM/Wi-Fi enabled Bluetooth devices. If this hotspot gateway is a real-time mobile monitoring device, then the BLE beacon solution is considered as a standard “monitoring” solution for the supply chain – end to end. If BLE beacons are used to record data (where a hotspot gateway is not available) and then gather the data at another location where a hotspot gateway is provided (such as temperature tracks that were logged and stored in the beacon, and recognized when they finally reach their end destination), it becomes a limited “Track and Trace” solution – comparable to a temperature data logger. This is less ideal than the real-time monitoring solution because it is not capable of identifying changes in temperature during the movement of the shipment, resulting in a less actionable system, and making the goods susceptible to contamination.

Using BLE to solve some of the most common challenges in the supply chain 

Problems in the supply chain are inevitable. From the raw materials to the last-mile, the rising demand for acceleration and optimization create headaches for managers.  Bluetooth beacons, however, are already paving the way for significant impacts on several companies.  

Here are some of the common issues facing the supply chain, and how beacons help  alleviate these problems. 

Loss of resources

The supply chain deals with many common tools such as pallets, containers, and lids.  Those tools are constantly on the move. One typical, and unwanted, warehouse problem is the constant loss of resources. Deloitte, cited in DHL Supply Chain Insights, says that the cost of replacing “lost” sustainable packaging and pallets in the North American auto industry is around $750 million a year. He also stated that the US Postal Service loses around 20% of its pallets annually, while the automotive sector loses 15-20% of its pallets and lids annually. Companies can save significant money by controlling these loses. 

By using Bluetooth tags in pallet tracking, owners can track the movement of pallets (either with disposable or durable tags) and know when and where pallets disappear.  This can also be matched up with automated messages or other actions to prevent human errors.

Wasted storage space

Securely managing storage is a vital component in warehousing. With the help of Bluetooth tags, businesses can build digital and smart warehouses, allowing them to better track their assets. This makes it more convenient for workers and managers to locate packages wherever they have been placed, increasing storage location options.

Inadequate tracking system and poor oversight

No number of meetings and reviews can undo what inefficient asset tracking systems have done to certain businesses.  Because of inefficiencies, operators are faced with obstacles that waste their time, and shortfalls that use up resources. This is not just a matter of a few hundred dollars wasted on poor quality asset management, but billions lost. Bluetooth tags can be simply attached to equipment or employees which can then support the asset tracking system, giving the operators complete oversight of daily operations.

Improper temperature tracking

Pharmaceuticals, foods, and other delicate assets strongly require proper temperature tracking. This minor problem may lead to unnecessarily complex solutions.  Employees must manually check numbers, or constantly move sensors, risking  increased chances of human error. Bluetooth beacons with sensors are now readily available to automate this process.

Managing and handling sensitive goods require attentive monitoring, not just for financial, but also for legal reasons. When something unexpected happens to a temperature-sensitive asset, hundreds of thousands of dollars can go right out the door. This is why affordable, easy-to-use Bluetooth tags are now being implemented to monitor the temperature of items transported through the cold chain.

Lack of strong warehouse security and consequent thefts

Theft is one of the most infuriating problems in the supply chain. Losing a large number of assets to theft should not be tolerated.  

Supply chain managers have a habit of keeping many expensive goods in one warehouse. To minimize this, Bluetooth beacons or tags are equipped to automate access control. These provide an additional layer of security, which can trigger alarms in case assets are moved (without permission) outside of the set parameters.

Real-Time GPS Tracking

GPS trackers are used to track the movement of people, devices, vehicles, or shipments.  

Typically, a GPS vehicle tracker logs GPS data beamed from a satellite, and then transmit it “live,” or in real-time, over the internet by using GSM SIM-enabled data plans, or through Wi-Fi. Typically, this data is limited, as it only tracks one variable, location. GPS becomes “monitoring,” when the tracker is capable of gathering more than just the location information (such as temperature, pressure, or other conditions), and transmits it in real-time along with the location. Let us not forget the rules applied when “monitoring” is used to identify a visibility solution.

Assume that goods are fragile. Managers want to ensure that someone at a transit warehouse is handling their packages appropriately, and to know where the handling is happening. A GPS monitoring system makes it convenient to contact the right person (if anything unexpected happens) to prevent damage to shipments.

Moreover, GPS/GSM based tracking or monitoring devices can serve as hotspot gateways that can sense BLE beacons in their environment.  When utilized together, assuming the device is capable of sensing shifting beacons while it is moving, then it truly becomes a powerful end-to-end package-level supply chain “real-monitoring” solution.

Choosing the Best Solution 

While there is no universal approach for “track and tracing” and “real-time” monitoring,” smart choices can still be  based on specific problem scenarios. To make an informed decision, consider these key points:

Getting off to a good start

To begin the search for a solution, calculate what aspects of the products need to be identified. Determine what kind of information is required to be collected. Research the market for measurement technologies that meet those requirements. Estimate the costs of employing the technologies and what savings they can provide to the business. This information can help develop a rationale for selecting the technology to purchase.

Choosing the suitable IoT device

IoT technologies can support new kinds of information valuable for expanding an existing business. Some of the most common categories include:

  • Very long battery lifetime (even up to 10 years)
  • Single-use items such as integrated batteries and simple sensors
  • Extra sensors, such as temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure sensors
  • Possibility to upload information to the internet directly from the device (e.g. via mobile bile networks), send data over BLE to hubs at strategic points, or read data from the devices at an endpoint

Knowing which kind of IoT communication to utilize

It is important for solutions to have the ability to retrieve data and use it for analysis.  Therefore, it is vital to know what kind of communication the devices should use.  Some questions to consider are:

  • Should RFID be used? If yes, should RFID labels be read from the beginning to the end?
  • Is continuous communication required?
  • Will the technology require access to consistent generated power, or is battery-supplied power enough?

Some of the possibilities for the communication of gathered date include:

  • Wi-Fi, LoRa, Sigfox – They are similar to mobile networks but optimized solely for IoT
  • Mobile Networks – They are similar to standard mobile phones.
  • Bluetooth/BLE – It is typically used for communicating with a gateway that transmits data to the internet
  • RFID – It is typically used if you need something portable and easy to implement

Knowing size limitations

Sizer and price are often the two key factors in terms of knowing the possibilities that exist.  Related to the device size, it is important to ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there is an object that needs to be connected to something else?
  • Should I need a fixed integration, or do I need to connect numerous devices?
  • Should this be just a label or a larger device?
  • How will the location be tracked?

There are various options for tracking devices’ physical locations. Generally, GPS Tracking Systems are used, however, they are relatively costly, in terms of both unit prices and power consumption. Other tracking technologies, such as RFID, Bluetooth/BLE, Wi-Fi, or Mobile Networks are available.

Know what parameters sensors are required to track

Knowing the location is important, but there are other possibilities related to the registration and collection of data using various parameters. Normally, the sensors should show the require data.

There is a long list of parameters that sensors can register.  Some of the most common parameters are:

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Air pressure
  • Light level
  • Sound level
  • Acceleration or movement
  • Air quality

There are many ways to meet sensing needs, but power consumption, size, and unit prices must also be considered.

Determining the required level of visibility 

Before you can analyze the level of insight required, first determine the level of visibility desired. Is tracking required at a vehicle, container, pallet, or shipment level?  Will an audit trail be required?

Identify if a standard “track and trace” solution will work, or if the “real-time monitoring” approach will be required.  Once the level of visibility has been finalized, begin searching for IoT solution providers who can better address specific use-cases. 

Conclusion

It is evident that most of the solutions offered in the market are mostly in the “track and trace” or “real-time tracking” categories such as GPS vehicle tracking and RFID.  This is also apparent with the case of temperature loggers, where customers were able to know what went wrong with their shipment only after it reached its end destination. Problems were not actionable, making the system nothing more than a tracing solution. Another problem was that even when a shipment was tracked in real-time, the location of the shipment was the only data provided, since only one parameter was being tracked.  

There are no doubts that “track and trace” is an effective solution, providing precise and complete visibility of the location, condition, and costs of goods. In today’s mobile and GPS connected world, it is extremely easy to find out where a shipment is.  There can be instant contact the driver’s smartphone or the operator’s telematics to find out, within minutes and feet, a shipment’s location. 

Real visibility in today’s e-commerce powered society, receiving and fulfilling orders, scheduling pickups, and knowing delivery schedules, requires far more than just location details. It demands dependable tools built on instant and accurate data, gathered live from multiple platforms. Real visibility provides the ability to assess the situation using multiple measurements, for quick responses. 

“Trusted analytics” use real-time visibility so customers can confidently track the status of their goods and assets. GSM, BLE, and Wi-Fi are technologies which will efficiently provide end-to-end visibility indoors, outdoors, and in-transit across businesses and across the globe.  This vision paved the way for the rise of “real-time monitoring” solutions for goods and assets. Compared to the benefits of the “track and trace” solutions, “real-time monitoring” capabilities can result in improved cost savings and better damage prevention. With these solutions, companies are able to accumulate data on the status of their deliveries and shipments, thus allowing more informed decisions. This means that instead of assessing just the outcomes, companies are now able to monitor the entire supply chain. In conclusion, real-time monitoring solutions maximize the visibility of a company’s supply chain so it can protect its goods and assets; and make intelligent data-informed decisions that will help the company maintain a reasonable product, satisfied customers, and a solid supply chain operation.


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