Pallets, totes, containers, and other Unit Load Devices (ULDs) are a key part of logistics. They are being used each day and in large quantities, yet they’re also often treated as expendable. This is not because they’re unimportant but rather because the resources it takes to keep track of them has long been impractical. New, more affordable solutions are needed to make pallet tracking manageable and intuitive.
There are several methods of asset tracking already in place in the supply chain. Passive RFID or NFC can be used to scan in certain assets. GPS can track items moving large distances. For pallets and other ULDs, there are few technologies that can track movements within a building or as through the entire chain.
Passive tracking is very established in the industry largely due to its low price point. From 10¢ RFID tags to printable barcodes, they are easy to create and easy to toss out at the end of the day. However, along with this ultra low cost comes very limited use cases. Passive tags only work when brought in extremely close proximity to a scanner, meaning they must be actively scanned. This means uncertain real-time data as you must rely entirely on the most recently recorded information.
Problems with passive tracking:
Active tracking, on the other hand, uses that technology that need not be actively scanned or recorded. The tags have a longer reach, allowing them to reach readers that are further away. For example, one Bluetooth gateway can locate a Bluetooth tag anywhere in the zone or room (depending on room size).
Though the main technical difference between active and passive solutions is the read distance, there resulting possibilities and use cases are actually much more meaningful. Passive tags are about building up a list of location information one package at a time. These lists are useful but neither real-time nor highly actionable. They’re just lists.
Active pallet tracking means a running list and image of where each tagged asset is in real-time. It means digitalizing the entire process and enabling greater use of data. For example, an active solution can not only tell you pallet 242 was last seen in a given storage area—it can tell you where the pallet is now, where it’s been, how often it’s been moved. This can clarify employee movements, help stop errors in their tracks, and give managers oversight they can use as needed.
Active pallet tracking means:
There are two primary methods of active ULD tracking throughout the supply chain. Active RFID and Bluetooth. Active RFID has long been used across several industries to track pallets, other assets, and employees. However, active RFID also are known for their large price tag. The technology requires very expensive readers that range anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. This, coupled with tags that cost $10 as opposed to 10¢ has made them less desirable.
However, as technology develops, the use cases and possibilities also become more valuable for supply chain managers. With better data analytics, better user interfaces, and more possibilities for automation, active pallet tracking has become more desirable. It’s not just about recording location information more easily, it’s about accessing and using that data like never before.
Now, Bluetooth is also being used to track these ULDs. Though Bluetooth has always had these capabilities, it is only recently being developed to suit these use cases. Bluetooth readers and tags are now actively being shaped and created for asset tracking and Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS).
While Bluetooth offers largely the same results as Active RFID, it uses different technology and therefore has a few key differences. Most importantly here is the price point. While RFID readers cost several thousand dollars, a Bluetooth reader can cost less than one hundred. Bluetooth tags are also being developed that cost increasingly less and are more appropriate for single use.
Once you have tags and readers installed on site, you start generating location data of your pallets, you need a place to store and analyze this data. That's why a real-time location solution needs a third component: a platform. We call it an IoT platform because it carries a broader meaning than an RTLS (Real-Time Location System).
An IoT platform is where all your assets and workflows digitalize. It's a digital representation of your facility, showing you the real-time and historical location of all your assets, as well as their condition, flow, and performance.
Modern IoT platforms enable you to oversee the location and flow of your assets, analyze their performance overtime, and set up workflows based on defined events. For pallet tracking, this means that you can:
Stop errors: by having complete visibility of movements, managers can spot errors the moment they occur. Should a pallet go in the wrong direction, automated messages can be sent to stop the situation from escalating any further.
Real-time location data: no matter where you are or which pallet you needed localized, that information can be made available instantly. Up-to-the-minute data free from human errors means much a more reliable and stable system. This means fewer lost or misplaced assets.
Localization of employees: Tracking pallets and goods also allows managers to understand employee movements. By tracking when and how long an asset is on the move, you know exactly how much time employees spend on given activities.
Optimized stowage: Storing assets can often waste either time or space. By actively tracking location data, pallets can be stored quickly and more easily without ever being lost. They can even be stored with goods that are typically kept separate.
Secure assets: Whether pallets are often lost, misplaced, or stolen, tracking makes them easier to find. If they are within the zonal range of a reader (up to 50 meters with a Kontakt.io Bluetooth Gateway), they can be located within seconds.
The logistics space is becoming increasingly digitalized. Active tags will be necessary to make each asset easily localized, processes more optimized, and also to make accountability easier to manage. Pallet tracking and logistics is one key step towards much larger changes happening in the industry.