Machine to Machine in the Container Supply Chain

Machine to machine interface

Published Aug 23, 2016 3:15 AM by Wendy Laursen

Container tracking has been around a long time in various guises, but today it is part of a much bigger trend towards machine-to-machine (M2M) telematics and sensors which connect and monitor the things in the Internet of Things (IoT). 

That trend is impacting many consumer, business and industrial markets – from connected cars, to home heating can be controlled from the other side of the world via mobile phone, real-time monitoring of heavy equipment working deep in mines and quarries, intelligent buoys that can sense and report on fish stocks out at sea and devices that track elephants on the move across remote parts of Africa, to name but a few. 

MarEx spoke to Michael Dempsey, Vice President Container and Port Solutions at ORBCOMM, a U.S. company that offers M2M communications solutions, to find out about the future of maritime technology.

What can M2M do for the maritime industry?

Currently, containers, ships and other intermodal transport assets such as chassis and gensets are mainly what we call “dark, dumb and disconnected.”  What this means is that we really don’t know much about them. They are not self-aware, we can’t see them, and they can’t tell us about their actions and status. 

M2M/IoT telemetry is all about making assets, cargo and shipments “visible, smart and connected,” generating hard data that can be used in a variety of ways. What we are really talking about here is creating real-time visibility and control over complex container supply chain operations by fitting containers, equipment and cargo with automated locating and sensing technology. 

Essentially, M2M is the process whereby one machine talks to another over a communication channel, generally GSM or satellite. A typical ‘smart asset technology stack’ today includes M2M telemetry devices and sensors, data connectivity, network management and M2M software applications via cloud and mobile. 

M2M/IoT telemetry devices, which are fixed to containers and other intermodal transport assets on a permanent or temporary basis, are now available in all shapes and sizes. That includes solar-powered options and also dual-network versions that can switch between GSM (global system for mobile communication) and satellite to ensure uninterrupted tracking in remote areas where wireless communication doesn’t reach. GPS tracking comes pretty much as standard, allowing containers and other assets to be located on the move and while stationary at ports and depots, using geo-fencing.

Increasingly, M2M devices are closely associated with an array of specialized sensors that can remotely monitor a very wide range of conditions such as temperature, humidity, light, shock, motion, door opening, fuel levels and tyre pressure. 

Today’s M2M/IoT telemetry options range from basic tracking functionality up to sophisticated devices. The more sophisticated devices allow users to remotely monitor and take action, for instance:

•    Adjust the temperature and internal climate of refrigerated and controlled atmosphere containers
•    View and actively report  the opening of container  doors
•    Receive automatic alerts if there is a change in light level  inside a container - which can indicate that a cargo theft or breach for other illicit purposes is in progress, or that the container is empty and ready to be reassigned for a new job

All of these uses for the technology are reality today. So it really is about much more than just tracking the whereabouts of a piece of equipment, important though that is.

Are there advantages for port operations?

There are many! All over the world, we are seeing port authorities looking at how to get ‘smarter,’ using digital technologies to help them optimize traffic flows, deal with bigger cargo peaks and congestion risks resulting from larger ships and maximize infrastructure utilization. Ports are very complex organisms, with many different interests and activities to juggle on the waterside and landside, and a huge amount of information that needs to change hands between various supply chain members and government entities as goods pass through. 

Live data as provided by M2M and IoT applications is increasingly seen as a pre-requisite for the digital port of the future. Real-time visibility drives optimization, by providing insight on what is actually happening versus what was planned, and allowing smart decisions to be made as a result. 

Data generated from M2M and IoT applications can be shared, used and analyzed in new ways among multiple stakeholders in the port community. We will undoubtedly see many more examples of connectivity in the future, ranging from telematics on trucks, trailers, chassis, gensets and containers, to devices on cranes and other handling equipment. 

“Intelligent equipment” is the current mantra of global container terminal operators such as APM Terminals, who are all looking at how they can use new M2M and sensor technologies to get much better insight into the location, status, performance and safety of their assets.

What is happening at sea?

A related M2M development at sea is the GSM enablement of ships, effectively creating a floating WiFi network that allows onboard monitoring of all M2M-equipped containers. This is particularly valuable for temperature-sensitive shipments. Real-time reefer container status data and alarms can be viewed on the vessel by authorized crew members on board and also by operations personnel on-shore. 

Information is transmitted from ship to shore using the new generations of fleet broadband satellite, which is lower in cost than its predecessors. 

The benefits include crew safety, reducing the need to physically check the status of refrigerated containers on deck and in holds, and better cargo care, with speedy detection if container temperatures are out-of-spec and the ability to remotely correct this from ship or shore. Where malfunctioning reefer containers need attention that can’t be given on the ship, shore-based maintenance and repair staff can be alerted early so they are ready and waiting when the vessel docks. 

This also means there is full traceability along the supply chain, especially important for high-value pharma cargoes that are increasingly moving by sea rather than air.

When you consider that the latest mega-container ships, and smaller vessels that are optimized for perishable-heavy trades (i.e. from Latin America), may be carrying 2,000 reefer containers on board, you can see the value of extending remote visibility and control to the maritime leg of container supply chains.  

Reefer container monitoring is a major current area and one where we expect to see continued growth. We estimate that currently around 300,000 refrigerated containers are fitted with M2M telematics, out of the global fleet of approximately 1.5 million units.
Maersk Line is by far the largest single user, having deployed M2M telematics incorporating ORBCOMM technology on its entire 270,000-strong reefer box fleet. Other big container carriers are expected to follow suit in due course, though it is a major investment decision. 

We are already seeing adoption on regional and/or high value reefer trades i.e. pharmaceuticals.

Is adoption of M2M technology on the rise?

Yes, adoption is increasing. There are a number of supply and demand side issues at work here, as you would expect.

On the supply side, communications networks have become both more reliable and far less costly over the past few years. This has made it technically feasible and financially viable for M2M applications to capture and transmit large amounts of data on a near real-time basis. This trend will continue, including development of new high-speed 5G LTE (long term evolution) wireless communications and advances in satellite technology. 

As the world’s only satellite operator dedicated 100 percent to M2M, ORBCOMM recently launched its second generation OG2 network, offering up to six times the data access and up to twice the transmission rate of our existing OG1 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. This enables faster message delivery, larger message sizes and better coverage at higher latitudes while significantly increasing network capacity.  

On the demand side, we see four big issues driving adoption:

•    Security and safety, to mitigate the risks of cargo theft, damage, tampering, smuggling, stowaways, terrorism and tax evasion
•    Visibility, for multiple reasons: to improve asset availability and reduce fleet operations costs, to mitigate port congestion through better traffic flow management, and to enable advanced decision making along the chain. This includes early incident detection and response to reduce damage, loss and claims and help avoid costly supply chain breakdowns 
•    Process automation in container terminals and ports to support operational safety and efficiency with real-time insight into logistics processes, as well as tracking the location, utilization, status and performance of handling equipment and vehicles   
•    Regulatory, providing hard data and chain of custody for compliance with security, environmental, food and pharmaceutical safety laws

In terms of who is driving adoption, cargo interests, logistics providers, shipping and transport entities, port operators, governments, regulatory agencies and other international bodies are all playing a part. That’s because this technology can fulfil multiple roles at the same time. 

For shippers, third party logistics and government interests, cargo security, safety and quality are particularly high on the agenda, often tied into regulatory compliance and chain of custody. Reusable, trip-based M2M devices – commonly referred to as ‘slap and track’ – allow for tracking on a per-shipment basis, rather than being permanently fixed to a specific container. 

This is important, as it means M2M can now be used by non-asset owning supply chain members to achieve their objectives, rather than having to depend upon investment by the carrier that controls the equipment. 

Having said that, another trend we have already been involved with is for M2M telematics capability to be integrated into the container manufacturing process, ready for activation later. 

One interesting development is the use of trip-based security telematics to track shipments of bonded cargoes from the time they arrive at a port terminal to the point where the cargo is finally discharged and becomes liable for customs duty payments. This can be after transport inland via a designated corridor or to a near-port free trade zone. 

For shipping and transport interests, cost control and operational efficiency are key drivers. That includes optimizing asset utilization by ‘turning’ equipment more quickly. M2M tracking means that operators can keep much better tabs on containers and other equipment dispersed across the world. 

Sensors can also be used to automatically identify when a container is empty and available for re-load. This is one of the functions being deployed by Hub Group, the U.S. intermodal operator and logistics provider, which has installed sophisticated telematics on 18,000 domestic intermodal 45-foot and 53-foot containers. 

These containers need to be turned far more often than a deep-sea marine container, justifying investment in advanced M2M technology. We can see the same applying to regional, feeder and short-sea carriers, who need to work their equipment far harder than the deep-sea sector. 

Going forward, in the near term we expect high value, time sensitive and temperature sensitive cargoes to remain in the vanguard when it comes to adoption.  

Where do you see the technology going in the future?

There’s quite a lot happening now, and we can expect to see more development over the coming few years as M2M and IoT adoption scales up across many industrial and consumer applications. 

Firstly, there will be a proliferation of sensors to provide all sorts of intelligence. One telematics device can talk to literally hundreds of different sensors using ‘near field’ communications technology like Bluetooth Low Energy. In the future, we expect that Bluetooth Low Energy sensors will be used to keep tabs on just about everything you can think of related to cargo and container status. 

This will also extend to container handling equipment in ports and terminals. Intel, the computer chip maker that’s now heavily involved in smart and autonomous vehicles, fit-tech, augmented reality and other fast-moving IoT trends, says that the future is “sensors on everything” with a ratio of 10 sensors to every one device emerging as a new normal. 

For container supply chain applications, we expect dual-mode GSM and satellite devices to become increasingly the norm. Containers go to many places where GSM coverage is poor to non-existent and dual-mode means that satellite is always available as a back-up for mission-critical operations. This applies especially where security and/or cargo condition monitoring is a primary driver for usage. 

A good example is current adoption of ORBCOMM dual-mode telematics to track special 45ft temperature-controlled containers that are used to carry high-value electronic goods overland by rail from China to Germany via Kazakhstan, as part of China’s New Silk Road, One Belt One Road initiative. The rail journey stretches thousands of miles across some extremely inaccessible terrain. With no GSM connectivity, satellite is crucial to maintain a watching ‘eye in the sky’ in case of attempted theft or equipment malfunctions. 

In fact, what we will likely see emerge are more tri-modal devices, combining GSM, satellite and Bluetooth for low cost, near field communications. Bluetooth has a role not just to ‘speak’ with sensors located in and on containers, handling equipment and vehicles, but also to enable other local / mobile applications.  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.