Powering digital transformation through IoT

Summary: Once shipping containers left port, they would go dark - that was until Internet of Things was introduced, which allows Net Feasa to track their containers throughout their journeys.

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You would think that the world’s supply chains, shipping routes, and international ports were all seamlessly connected, but it wasn’t until recent years that shipping containers were able to be tracked from start to finish. Shipping containers would effectively go dark once they left one point and wouldn’t be active again until they reached their destination. However, once Internet of Things was introduced, these routes are now able to be tracked from their starting point until their destination.

This is how Kerry-based technology company Net Feasa made serious waves.

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“The average factory uses just-in-time manufacturing and is highly organised. Staff get components from suppliers in the door, through the manufacturing process and back out the door again as finished products in minimal time,” Mike Fitzgerald, founder of Net Feasa, explained.

“At the other end of the scale, big retailers use customer relationship management (CRM) systems to accurately forecast what they’ll need from those factories to fulfil customer demand in the most efficient way.

“But in between, the transportation industry that moves everything has a huge headache. Hugely valuable pieces of information on the whereabouts of global goods are sitting in disconnected data silos. For example, in North America you’d think there might be 40 or 50 big trucking companies in total, but there are actually between 700,000 and 800,000.

“While each of these companies will have their drivers kitted out with mobile phones and GPS, the actual trucks themselves and the containers they carry are disconnected. There are some shipping companies with up to a couple of hundred people working for them that are still making phone calls to check where things are.”

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Reimaging freight logistics with IoT

Net Feasa teamed up with Vodafone to deliver a globally connected intermodal smart container solution (IoTPASS) for the freight logistics industry. This Internet of Things (IoT) solution brings each container into the connected world and adds a degree of intelligence. This technology uses a small amount of power and needs very little to no maintenance.

Using Vodafone’s global IoT network, Net Feasa can track individual containers and, using AI, it can predict if the container is on a truck, a ship, a train, or waiting in port. The resulting single, unified data set becomes hugely valuable to the shipping industry, and it’s consistent wherever the container is on its journey across the supply chain. This results in cost savings and carbon footprint reductions through the analysis of real-time data, detailing where the container is at all times – whether on land, in the sea, or in the air. The solution offers true visibility and traceability across the supply chain and addresses the important circular economy requirements.

“At any given time, there are about 29 million shipping containers moving around the globe and another 20 million that are just sitting outside the supply chain. 90% of all goods are shipped using these 29 million containers. Most refrigerated containers are already tracked because they’re powered and highly insured, and it’s relatively inexpensive to add tracking technology,” Fitzgerald shared.

“But this is an expensive solution when it comes to dry containers, these tracking devices just aren’t suitable for unpowered low-cost shipping containers. That’s where we come in – using low cost and low power consumer IoT technology that tracks very efficiently, using devices that are effectively repurposed, extremely long battery life, mobile phones.”

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Emergency energy efficiency

Net Feasa works with the Tyndall National Institute to enhance energy efficient components, the goal being that tracking devices last from the first day of a container being used right up to its end-of-life. The current lifespan of a shipping container is around 14 years. Fitzgerald would like to see IoTPASS devices match that lifespan, with needing to be recharged or maintained in any way. Currently, batteries used on competing IoT tracking systems have a lifespan of less than two years, so using them was not cost-effective.

Speaking about cost, Fitzgerald explained: “No shipping company want to commit to major maintenance programmes and we don’t want to ever have to change a battery. International shipping operates on very tight margins. We can’t have an expensive unit installed with expensive monthly fees, and we can’t afford to allocate manpower to finding containers and changing batteries. If you just re-purpose existing tracking technology, it costs between $250 and $300 per container, which is completely unacceptable to the shipping industry, and that’s before you get to the monthly fee of $10 a month, which is also unacceptable.

"If you go for the low-cost disposable alternative, you have to account for the manpower required to replace them. We want to do away with this entirely.”

Net Feasa use ultra-lower power devices that are able to harvest energy through solar panels, vibrations, and heat as the container moves around, and marrying that to the sophisticated power management systems.

“The technology for energy harvesting exists, and power management exists, so we’re just taking it to another level using AI to understand when and how we should use the device components. But this has applications well past monitoring supply chains. It has extensive applications for things like smart agriculture, pet tracking, and even building management and structural engineering. Putting smarter IoT devices into a building allows you to do far more sophisticated energy and resource management,” Fitzgerald said.

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Partners with purpose

All of these applications are powered by Vodafone’s sophisticated global network in a complementary manner that benefits both companies. “We use Vodafone SIM cards extensively and that allows us to address all these verticals, power our IoTPASS system and also our smart farming applications. We can now build on AI-based power management and energy harvesting on top of that,” said Fitzgerald.

“IoTPASS is brought to life by the Vodafone connection, but then we add another layer of intelligence on top, to make the connection and the application smarter. This is where we deploy our artificial intelligence systems and machine learning to allow our devices to understand where they are and what they are doing, when they’re moving, when they’re sitting still. All the time making smart decisions to save energy.”

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