Dream Cargo: Inspection-Free Shipment

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 {complink 2470|IBM Corp.} 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.

10 comments on “Dream Cargo: Inspection-Free Shipment

  1. Clairvoyant
    October 16, 2012

    Great article Douglas. There are definitely many advantages to using a TREC type device for shipments. I think this is a very good idea that the industry should move forward with. I think inspection processes will always be needed though, even for trusted companies to ensure safety, however this technology could cut down the inspection time significantly.

  2. dalexander
    October 16, 2012

    @Clairvoyant, You are right on the money. The idea of the living labs experiment was to be able to identify trusted businesses not so they would not be inspected, but rather that they would be inspected less frequently. This would of course leave open time and resources to go after the unknown or unregistered companies' containers. The streamlining also becomes evident in the billing operations where the government can collect Customs payments and excise taxes (Beer in the living labs experiment) from aggregated shipment roll-ups over a period of time. The billing frequency would be dependent upon the company's payment disciplines exoerienced by the government. As trust grows, the shipments are more easily expedited through channels. It is important to acknowledge that the government will only qualify a participant business after the business has demonstrated that their internal bookkeeping and documentation is up to the required standards. The added benefit of having a homogenous bookkeeping standard and SOA application that allows disparate operating systems to link, makes the entire process more easily automated. With the addition of TREC devices, authentication, verification, and location issues are also logged into the EDI systems in real-time. Imagine watching a world map and locating where each shipment is, with sensor data indicating environmental conditions, RFID inventroy contnets and counts, and position using 3-axis accelerometers. I think wemay see some legislation on this here in the US, Homeland Security will eat this kind of technology and security.

  3. Barbara Jorgensen
    October 16, 2012

    Minus the TRAC, isn't the intent of this system similar to a voluntary security system initiated by the US government a decade ago?  I can't even remember the acronym, but it was supported by large electronics OEMs that voluntarily complied with the regulation and then pushed it down their supply chain. At any rate, that was the idea. Guess it didn't take off. Will keep on searching for it–it had a funky acronym that I never got right…

  4. _hm
    October 16, 2012

    It may be little expensive and suitable for specialized value added cargo. But it will be quite effective for this type of cargo. Does this cargo needs some sort of power to operate? Will be it be hazardeous for having batterty inside it? How long this power will last?


  5. dalexander
    October 16, 2012

    _hm, Depending upon the radio transmission mode the power modules could last up to 1 year. Couple that with passive RFID and there is no time limit. Bu to be absolutely proactical, using IEEE 802.15.4 the radio part of the tech only cost about $3/BOM and is simple as it can operate in up to 64000 nodes with only about 30ms of latency. The reporting range is about 70 meters and can be amplified actively for an extended range. The slow data rate is around 250Kbbs and includes 128 bit AES encryption and application. The overall sensor application and network is called ZigBee and includes a ZigBee Coordinator (FFD)Full Function Device, ZigBee Router (FFD), ZigBee end device (RFD, Reduced Function Device, or FFD), the mesh link, and a star link. The network is fixed on any vessel and linked to any port with the ZigBee equipment. So with the extender in place, the entire range of the freighter is covered for transmission and read capability. ZigBee is designed for low to very low duty cycles in static and dynamic environments with many active nodes. Pretty cool stuff.

  6. dalexander
    October 16, 2012

    _hm Here is the ZigBee link if you want to do more investigation.

  7. dalexander
    October 16, 2012

    _hm Here it is from Wikipedia. The ZigBee Radio is just about the same size as a US Quarter coin.

    ZigBee  is a specification for a suite of high level communication protocols using small, low-power digital radios based on an IEEE 802 standard for personal area networks. ZigBee devices are often used in mesh network form to transmit data over longer distances, passing data through intermediate devices to reach more distant ones. This allows ZigBee networks to be formed ad-hoc, with no centralized control or high-power transmitter/receiver able to reach all of the devices. Any ZigBee device can be tasked with running the network.

    ZigBee is targeted at applications that require a low data rate, long battery life, and secure networking. ZigBee has a defined rate of 250 kbit/s, best suited for periodic or intermittent data or a single signal transmission from a sensor or input device.[1]  Applications include wireless light switches, electrical meters with in-home-displays, traffic management systems, and other consumer and industrial equipment that requires short-range wireless transfer of data at relatively low rates. The technology defined by the ZigBee specification is intended to be simpler and less expensive than other WPANs, such as Bluetooth.

  8. Taimoor Zubar
    October 17, 2012

    Seems like a pretty decent idea but the cost element would be a deterrent in making it being used on a mass scale. Unless the cost comes down, the technology would be restricted to only a few companies.

  9. dalexander
    October 17, 2012

    @TaimoorZ, the three dollar cost I cited was for the ZigBee transmit module in the TREC which are reprogram able and reusable. So once a TREC is purchased and attached to a container, you are good to go for a year. The cost of ownership over a year goes way down when divided by the number of uses per year. Couple that with Item level passive RFID, and now the track and trace at specific milestones along the way, allow for an end-to-end solution for containers, LTL, pallet, carton, and items. Scan in and scan out operations can be done at all levels simultaneously and compared to a high level electronic shipping manifest that would immediately catch any quantity, contents, and weight disparities and alert the shipper's authorities immediately. I think this is great technology. I expect it will become ubiquitous fairly soon.

  10. _hm
    October 17, 2012

    @Douglas: Thanks for clarification. I have seen them very effective in medical/phrama market and cost can be justified there. However, apart from $3 per BOM, infrastructure and trained people will cost much more. Idea is good, but it will take much longer time to be common practice.


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