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5 ways IoT trackers can save your ass(et)

From end-to-end visibility to real-time inventory counts, asset tracking can save money and improve efficiency in warehouse and supply chain operations.
From end-to-end visibility to real-time inventory counts, asset tracking can save money and improve efficiency in warehouse and supply chain operations.
24 January 2024 •

Have you ever considered the sheer number of items needed to make a supply chain – or any logistics operation – run smoothly? We are talking about things like roller cages, containers, or pallets. We call them load units or simply assets, and there are millions of them floating around the DHL universe. That makes them valuable infrastructure on the one hand but easily overlooked or misplaced on the other. And it means new asset tracking solutions can help us save time and money.

"The biggest challenge with these load units is losing track of them. But they are essential to our core operations, which is why it is key to know where they are and ensure we have the right number at the right place and time," said Tina Ziemek, Director, DHL Group IoT Platform Strategy, Product, and Partner Management.

Asset tracking to the rescue

Device-agnostic asset tracking solutions leveraging IoT technology like RFID and GPS can make a big difference. IoT stands for Internet of Things, which is about connecting physical objects to the Internet in order to improve visibility & efficiency in operations. It is becoming one of the most valuable supply chain tools.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a technology that plays a vital role. It is nothing new, but recent price drops increase feasibility in warehouse settings. And that is why we are asking a lot of questions about how we can utilize asset tracking technology in our operations.

We are also increasingly integrating asset trackers into our operations. In the Netherlands, for example, we added some 47,000 asset trackers to roller cages used to move products around our warehouse floors and between facilities. And we have learned a lot. Here are five benefits we have observed so far:

1. Long-term asset tracking at scale

We co-developed a long-lasting asset tracking solution with Alps Alpine, which runs on the Sigfox IoT data network. Batteries in the trackers last up to seven years, even when sending multiple location updates daily to connected hotspots in warehouses. The long lifespan reduces costs and makes the solution easier to scale.

2. Avoiding shortages and reducing waste

A shortage of roller cages hurts business in several ways. If there are not enough of these load units, then we can not keep the goods moving. Either that or more expensive load carriers, such as cardboard pallet boxes, must be used. That increases costs and waste. Reusing roller cages is the more environmentally friendly option. Trackers can identify underused assets – detecting “high dwell times” – and flagging them as potentially available for use. This helps an operation determine whether they are utilizing their existing roller cages fully before purchasing new ones.

3. Preventing loss or theft

Assets go missing – it is a fact of life in enormous, multi-purpose warehouses or distribution centers. And theft can be an issue. So, while trackers allow you to keep an eye on your assets, they can also help you find misplaced items or recover them if they have been stolen. For example, if an asset tracker stops transmitting, it could be a technical issue or an indicator of theft. With the “last seen location” provided by the tracking solution, there is a better chance of finding the missing assets and either fixing technical issues or recovering them if they have been stolen. Preventing roller cage loss can save tens of thousands of euros across the supply chain.

4. Auditing usage

After deploying one asset tracking solution, we noticed a lot of roll containers going from one country to another. Upon investigation, we learned that a customer decided to outsource its e-commerce returns process to that country and use our roller cages to transport them. This mystery would have been much more difficult to solve without the trackers.

Customers may be unaware that they have collected too many roller cages in other cases. We use the reports generated by the asset trackers to flag this and recover those assets for redeployment elsewhere. We now use the technology to identify specific customer needs and use that information to improve the logistics flow of roller cages.

5. Monitoring other systems

Asset tracking solutions work by repeatedly pinging connected access points within warehouses. If a group of trackers in a particular warehouse fails to check in, it could indicate a network issue. Even though the problem may not be directly related to that group of items, the asset tracking system can flag it for further investigation.

"With the trackers, we can better detect specific customer needs and have a conversation with them about how we can improve the logistics flow of assets," said Stephan Strang, Digital Transformation, eCommerce Solutions Netherlands.

Connectivity is the key to asset tracking

One of the biggest lessons learned so far is the importance of end-to-end connectivity and a highly available infrastructure. You can slap asset trackers on just about anything that moves in today’s warehouse, but that will not do you any good if your network can not handle the data traffic. Plus you need to cover the entire facility and ensure there are no blind spots.

Track it and save

The potential of asset tracking solutions goes beyond pallets and roller cages. That is why DHL Group is developing device-agnostic asset tracking solutions to monitor these and other assets. Worldwide we are currently monitoring some 900,000 assets online – and the journey is far from over. With a growing library of use cases and devices, we have gathered valuable expertise for any logistics facility looking to harness the power of IoT to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

This story was first published on DHL Delivered and was republished with permission.