In a previous article, I introduced a very innovative, needful device that helps track containers in real-time while providing sensory information that includes, temperature, humidity, shock, GPS, door open/closed, and general atmospheric data to a remote monitoring station. (See: Star TRECs for the Supply Chain .)
In this follow-up article, I want to comment on the integration of the TREC device into the overall supply chain and how it can help guarantee, not just shipment integrity and security, but authenticity as well.
When I first wrote about the tamper-resistant, embedded controller, TREC, I mentioned that IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) was the key IT partner supporting the living lab experiments where four different industry sector participants were involved in a multiyear study on how to accelerate the supply chain. Bear in mind that government is not only concerned with collecting revenues on shipments but, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, has also become increasingly sensitive to security issues. The acceleration of the supply chain has to include the container inspection processes and paperwork compliance in terms of authenticity and not just correctness of form.
So, how does the TREC assist in speeding up the inspection process? Surely, we don't want the inspectors to move so quickly that they miss a nuclear weapon part or material that is being smuggled in or out of a country. With millions of containers moving through the supply chain daily, how in the world is it going to be possible to guarantee that no container is overlooked or missed because of limited inspection manpower, or critical, priority shipment schedules?
The key is to establish a trusted or secure trade lane, STL. This means the originator, the shipper, and the end receiver of the goods have been registered with the government as having passed critical measurement criteria for performance and reliability in terms of records management, handling procedures, and historical integrity.
STL is an example of a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that can be used to exchange information between the businesses in the supply chain and the government agencies involved in cross-border control procedures of the supply chain. Wikipedia defines SOA as follows:
SOA is a software implementation that codes how to integrate widely disparate applications for a Web-based environment and uses multiple implementation platforms. SOA defines the interface in terms of protocols and functionality. An endpoint is the entry point for such a SOA implementation.
For our purpose, if we see SOA as stitching software that can connect many businesses with different operating system languages and interfaces together, we can begin to envision the communications potential of interconnectedness between businesses and government agencies. Just as XML code can take the output of various database systems and allow for a common export and import format, so SOA at a higher level can allow multiple businesses to exchange data in real-time without having to be concerned with the software application from which the data was gathered. With an SOA and appropriate permissions, the government can access specific windows into a company's IT system without having to worry about compatibility issues. This is where trust comes into the equation.
Now when a company has a proven track record for expert document management and accounting practices, the government and the business can enter into a kind of partnership that will expedite the inspection process via the government's ability to tap into the company's shipping manifest for each container via a computer data "pull" operation vs. a paper-based "push" system involving dozens of forgeable or counterfeit paper forms circulating through numerous agency personnel hands and computer systems.
Now, with the trusted company's computer accessible import and export records, the inspection agencies can focus their inspection staff on unknown or little trusted companies' cargo shipments and effectively increase the inspection coverage by not having to inspect the trusted partners' goods as frequently. In fact, the trusted company's shipments can move through part of the supply chain much faster sans paperwork and inspection. The company is billed by Customs once a month based upon computer records, and if the company establishes a solid record of timely payments, its physical inspection rate may actually dwindle to zero.
This experimental system has been working on a small scale, but couple that with the advances in TREC technologies, and it won't be hard to see how the overall supply chain can benefit from a more cost-effective and efficient system. TRECs also have cameras, so via the SOA, real-time inspections of the contents of the containers can be managed through the cloud. Remember the GPS location feedback will also report as the container passes through pre-determined portals so a shipment cannot be diverted or repacked without the shipper's knowledge.
Trust is the key thing that makes this possible. Technology will never be a substitute for integrity, but it can help affirm or deny it.