Feature Story

IoT is changing everything, including pallets

by Jason Deign

IoT changes the pallet business

It's the mundane IoT applications that are really making a difference

‘The Internet of Things' (IoT) conjures up pictures of a future where billboards wink at passers-by, cars drive themselves, and your shopping arrives by drone. In real life though, IoT is having a big impact in places that you may take for granted. Take pallets, for instance.

These wooden platforms might not seem the first place you would think of to put sensors. They are cheap, with costs that range from around US$5 to $25 per unit. And they are easy to make and buy. This means most pallets only last about three years before being thrown away.

Why connect them to the IoT? It turns out there are plenty of reasons. While the pallets themselves may not cost much, the goods they carry tend to be very valuable, says Matthew Gilfillan, founder of a smart pallet firm called RM2.

RM2's pallets are made to last longer than normal and can be tracked at all times. This means the pallet and its goods can always be found, cutting costs from losses and theft. It gives "absolute visibility and transparency to your supply chain," Gilfillan says.

"The platform generates significant savings," he adds.

One study found RM2's pallets could be used for around 100 trips before having to be fixed or replaced. That is five and a half times the 18 trips or so you get from a standard wooden pallet.

With RM2, per-trip costs dropped by up to 20 percent and the carbon footprint went down 21 percent. With results such as these, it is no wonder that some experts have started to wonder whether pallets could be the next big thing for the IoT.

There are around 10 billion pallets worldwide. Hooking them up to IoT could lead to a massive upside for sectors such as retailSwedish research firm Berg Insight says there are around 10 billion pallets worldwide. Hooking them up to IoT could lead to a massive upside for sectors such as retail. And pallets are just one of a number of lowly objects that could see big changes thanks to the IoT.

Gadgets ranging from power meters to payment endpoints could also be transformed with a new wave of IoT sensors. The main features of these sensors are they are cheap and rely on low power wide area (LPWA) 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) mobile network signals.

The mobile sector body GSMA says: "LPWA networks [are] designed for IoT applications that are low cost, use low data rates, require long battery lives, and often operate in remote and hard-to-reach locations."

Berg Insight says more than half a billion things had been linked to LPWA or other mobile networks by the first quarter of 2017. "Over the past decades, adoption has spread from high-value to medium-value assets as the cost of communication has decreased," says the firm.

See also: IoT can help improve rail safety

"Today, the rise of LPWA technologies opens up new opportunities to address greenfield opportunities among low-value assets that cost less than $10," Berg Insight notes.

Dima Tokar, co-founder and head analyst at research firm MachNation, agrees. "LPWA technologies are expanding the breadth of viable IoT solutions," he says.

In looking at future use cases, he says, it is key not just to think about the value of the object being hooked up to the IoT, but also the value of the data you can get from it.

"Sensors that monitor airborne particulates for public health and safety may cost very little but provide measurable value to the city and its inhabitants," Tokar says. "IoT use cases such as track and trace can use very low-cost devices to track high-value cargo."

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