Sensors &

The Internet of Things

We created a series about the Key Ten Trends identified in the Material Handling and Logistics US Roadmap report published by MHI in January 2014. Our series is a deeper dive from our perspective on these trends, giving logisticians and supply chain managers a better understanding of them, and why we stress that leaders must consider their implications. We started the parade with two articles. Then we wrote three more. Five down, and five to go. Now we'll cover three more trends, starting with Sensors and the Internet of Things.

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How many sensors are watching what we do?  I am not asking how many types of sensors, but the actual count of sensors.

Would you believe about 8 billion? That was the estimate in 2013, up from 6 billion from 2012 and about 4.1 billion in 2011. So the estimates peg the growth at about 2 billion per year over a three-year trend.

Heck, things are just getting started. We don’t know the future for certain, but in 2014, Susan Eustis, the president of WinterGreen Research Inc., thought that the market for sensors integrated with processors would hit 2.8 trillion devices in 2019.

“It’s enabling a world of things. It’s going to grow unbelievably fast.”

Yeah, 2.8 trillion new devices in 2019. Fast?

Take your smart phone. Depending on the model you have, there will be anywhere from 16 – 21 different sensors. How about your car? There is as many as 24 types of sensors in a car made today.

Sensors and microprocessors are the things making quad-copters so user friendly. The little circuit board driving the on-board controls is a combination of GPS sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and microprocessors. The typical small quad-copter has at least seven motion sensors, and perhaps a GPS sensor. The higher-end units may have redundant sensors, processors, and control circuits that support video feeds back to the controllers.

Sensors Everywhere

How do sensors change the world of logistics?

Well, how many companies can tell you where every trailer is in their network? How about their trailer storage yard? 

Yard management is a big deal. Fifteen years ago, the rule of thumb for trailer parking was two to three trailer yard spots for every door on a distribution center. Recently I worked with a client who wanted five trailer-parking spots per door position. The building had 200 doors, requiring a yard with 1,000 trailer spots.

Try using a spreadsheet and a clipboard to track a yard with 1,000 trailer spots. That client used a magnetic RFID system to track the locations of the trailers. Company trucks had permanent RFID tags attached to the frame of the trailer. As outside trailers entered the yard, the gate guard attached a magnetic plate folding an RFID tag. They scanned the tag and entered the container number into the system. Via the database link between PO, Container Number, and RFID tag, this DC could track the location of any container, no matter how many times it moved in the yard.

If not for the sensors on poles at the four corners of the yard and the sensors on the building, at the doors, on the gates, and on the yard trucks, this operation would have a hard time tracking its inventory. In fact, they did have a hard time until they invested in the systems to track the container locations. Before that sensor investment, they tracked trailer and container locations via key entry by the yard drivers and R/F handheld devices. The error rates behind the entry were not as bad as the movements without any entry. Yard drivers would move a trailer out of the way to make room for new containers, forgetting to record the move in the system. Searching for a missing loaded trailer could take hours.

The problem was worse with empty trailers. Following the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), an inbound carrier removed an empty trailer that belonged to that carrier. Before the RFID system, the gate guard gave the driver a location to put the inbound trailer, and then a location to pull an empty. Inbound drivers not familiar with the yard could put a trailer in the wrong row. Worse, they could pick up the wrong trailer. While the gate guard might catch the error and prevent the trailer from leaving the yard, that was not 100% effective.

Tracking the yard was critical for this operation, since the company did not pull inventory into the building until it was time to process it. In essence, the yard became an extension of the warehouse. Until the RFID trailer tracking system went into operation, the location accuracy in the yard was about 80%. After, it was close to 100%.

Machines Talking to Machines

The big promise of the Internet of Things is the ability of machines to communicate with other systems outside the immediate network—for example, your car telling the service department at the local dealer that it is ready for an oil change. Yes it tells you, but it also tells an automated system to set an appointment for you, or to have the dealer call you to set the appointment.

 The Nest thermostat is one example of the Internet of Things. Taking it one step closer to the distribution center, the controls and sensors in new conveyor systems are now working on an Ethernet connection, making each device its own addressable unit. In the 1990s, a technician could remotely dial into a conveyor control system and watch the code to figure out what was failing in a system. They could change the programming and reset the controls. Today they can pull up the IP address of a sensor or an air valve, test it, and then alter the program in the microprocessor controlling that single unit of conveyor.

Where in older systems a single microprocessor controlled all the logic for an entire conveyor through complex relays and switches, the innovative systems now distribute the logic load to a network of processors in different parts of the system. In one large system, there are over 30 different processors, all communicating through a central network. One group of processors controls the voice pick systems; one processor for each of the carrousel systems; one processor for each of the conveyor lines in each of the pick zones; one driving the sortation system, pushing totes from receiving into the shelving systems; one processor controlling the put-to-light packing system; and another processor running the shipping sorters. Each of these systems communicates without the aid of a central controller.

As 2025 approaches, more of the sensors and processors will automatically communicate without human intervention. The implication of this kind of connection is a blade that cuts both ways, for the good and for the bad. The same sensors that can tell engineers the condition of a bridge or the valves in a municipal water system can also tell potential terrorists the conditions of those same systems. The same things that can improve life can be turned into tools to put our lives in danger. Ensuring that the data is protected while maintaining the open flow of information from the network of sensors is just one challenge we face.

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