Feature Story

Logistics get a lot smarter

by Anne Field

IoE technology provides real-time insights into everything from driver and vehicle performance to complex scheduling problems

A while ago, Saia LTL Freight, started using sensors to gather data about fuel usage, driver and engine performance and other metrics. But that information was downloaded only when trucks were in the shop for maintenance every month or so. More recently, however, the Johns Creek, Ga-based shipping company introduced an Internet of Everything (IoE)-based system on its fleet of 3,600 trucks through which sensors in vehicles transmit data to monitoring teams in the company’s office in real-time.

The result? The company gets a more a fine-tuned view of its 5,000 or so drivers’ performance, from how many hours a day they drive to whether they could be veering off into the next highway lane.  And they can take steps to change drivers’ behavior.

“Ultimately, our goal is to look for operating efficiencies,” says Brian Balius, Saia’s vice president of transportation. “And it’s all driven by data coming from the vehicles themselves.”

Businesses are introducing IoE technology to just about all steps of the supply chain, and that includes freight transportation. As Saia has discovered, sensor-based systems can provide a host of useful operational data providing managers with not only real-time insights into current performance, but also the ability to predict what might happen, among other information. It’s a trend with significant bottom line potential: Supply chain and logistics should provide an estimated $1.9 trillion in value, or new net profits, according to a recent study by DHL Trend Research, and Cisco Consulting Services.

Here’s a look at a few areas in logistics that are benefitting from these innovations.

Predictive maintenance and trouble-shooting

IoE systems provide data about the state of vehicle health, alerting engineers when repairs are needed. Case in point: a 2012 research project which teamed up Volvo, DHL, and other companies. Called Maintenance on Demand, embedded sensors in such locations as oil and damper systems transmitted data to a unit vehicles and then to a maintenance platform. When potential problems were detected, drivers could be alerted.

With temperature-sensitive cargo such as food and pharmaceuticals, systems can detect heat and cold fluctuations in real-time, monitoring the environment in delivery trucks and alerting central control teams when it climbs too high. They then can let the driver know about the situation and the need to inspect the vehicle. The remedy often requires an action as simple as shutting a door more tightly.

Streamlining scheduling

Take trains. The process for managing cars when they’re sitting in yards, waiting to be re-routed, involves a great many variables. For example, they have to be sorted and directed to the right tracks, a feat that’s more complex than first meets the eye because there may not be enough tracks to handle all the demand. As a result, cars can sit in yards for longer than is necessary.

With that in mind, General Electric, has developed a system which detects where all cars in the yard are. It creates dispatch plans with detailed instructions that are sent to various crews responsible for such things as inspection, pulling cars from one yard to another and testing trains before departure. Dwell time—how long cars stay in train yards before departing again-- can be decreased by as much as 10%, according to Srinivas Bollapragada, principal scientist at GE’s Global Research Center.

Driver health and safety

Long-haul truck drivers generally travel for hours at a time—an average of 100,000 miles a year, according to the American Trucking Associations. So it’s easy to lose focus. For that reason, some companies are introducing cameras in trucks that track such key indicators of fatigue as pupil size. When the system detects that a driver is sleepy, it sets off an alarm and seat vibrations.

For its part, Saia’s system detects when a trucker is, say, driving too closely behind a car in front or crossing into the next lane without using a turn signal. It then sounds a loud alert. “In case he’s dozing off, we get him before he runs into a ditch,” says Balius. In addition, a camera continuously records what’s happening. If there’s a problem that falls out of normal parameters—say, a trucker slams on the brakes—it would show safety experts at the main office what happened during the 10 seconds before and after the event, “so you can see if he was reacting to another driver or just zoning off,” says Balius. Then all that data can be tracked and evaluated, allowing drivers to get individualized reports about areas that need improvement. What about potentially serious cases? Says Balius, “We would be waiting for the driver when he got back to the terminal.”

# # #

The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and may not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

We welcome the re-use, republication, and distribution of "The Network" content. Please credit us with the following information: Used with the permission ofhttp://thenetwork.cisco.com/.