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Star TRECs for the Supply Chain

I just returned from a two-week vacation in which I had to engage several airlines to get to my destination. I noticed something has changed with the Transportation Security Administration people. They did not ask if I had left my baggage unattended or if it was ever out of my sight. In the past, if you had answered these questions honestly, the TSA would have pulled you and your luggage aside and gone through your stuff very carefully.

That being said, the absolute best security for the supply chain would be never taking your eyes off the shipment — from the factory to the end user. Since this just isn't possible, we have to try to devise a strategy that is 99.99 percent reliable against tampering, theft, and counterfeiting.

Many goods are transported utilizing a versatile enclosure called a container, which can be modified to go on freight trains, ocean vessels, and trucks. It really is just a big box waiting to be filled with whatever goods have been ordered for shipment. It can be modified to allow for lifting, rolling, stacking, loading, and security. Because security is the subject for this article, allow me to introduce you to an awesome bit of technology known as a container security device.

In its Container Security Initiative Strategic Plan for 2006-2011, the US Customs and Borders Protection says this about the devices (a.k.a. electronic seals or smart seals):

The use of electronic seals and the development of container technology that can track and report on the integrity of a shipment will provide supply chain stakeholders with a real time picture of the location and status of shipments and give carriers better control of equipment. These technologies significantly impact domestic and foreign cargo handling and trade facilitation.

Container security devices with varying degrees of sophistication are available. They range from simple mechanical devices that lock container doors to devices that use RFID technology, satellite technology, security-related sensors (e.g., illumination inside the container), logistics-related sensors (e.g., temperature, shock), and communication tools (e.g., GSM, WiFi) to detect tampering and other changes in the state of the goods.

Last month, I introduced you to the ITAIDE Living Labs experiment, and I promised to write about the innovative technology that made the experiment an overwhelming success. Let me keep that commitment. The ITAIDE Living Labs deployed advanced electronic seals known as tamper-resistant, embedded controllers (TRECs) to explore the potential of this technology.

A TREC is a container-mounted device consisting of a GPS receiver, a number of environmental sensors and communication modules, and a power supply. The GPS receiver tracks the container's precise location on regular intervals, when the container deviates from its expected route, and when it reaches specified locations. The sensors continuously monitor the state of the container: its temperature, its humidity, whether the door has been opened, etc. The device can store and transmit this information periodically to a database, where authorized parties can access it. The device also can be configured to raise real-time alerts whenever a predefined event takes place (a business rule is violated).

TRECs are part of IBM's Secure Trade Lane innovations. IBM was the IT partner with the ITAIDE Living Labs experiment.

In my next article, I will share how TRECs interface with ERP and government systems to streamline supply chain operations and validate security. If I can't keep my eyes on my luggage, maybe a personalized, limited-purpose TREC will come free with my next Samsonite purchase and will keep track of when my luggage is opened and shut. Maybe someday, famous actors and singers will get really special devices called Star TRECs.

5 comments on “Star TRECs for the Supply Chain

  1. SP
    October 9, 2012

    Wow the container security and tracking has become so advanced. But this is something that can be seen as coming. Supply chain business is one of the most critical in the whole product development. Imagine how much big loss it is if your consignment gets tampered with especially if its medical related. Thanks to science and technology that we have got so advanced.

  2. rohscompliant
    October 9, 2012

    This article reminds me of a movie in the '80's starring Rodney Dangerfield in which Rodney goes back to college and is in a business class where the prof proposes a hypothetical mfg plant to be built ………and Rodney asks 'where are you going to build this factory? fantasy land?…..what about the kick backs to the teamsters and the guys delivering the concrete?” My point is there are many oppurtunities for people in key positions to look the other way with their hands out for a little $$$$$. While technology is great and it does a lot of good……..it is a poor substitute when it comes to stopping the human condition if $$$ is to be made…….I am not trying to be a wise guy …….just pointing out glaring holes & gaps in the supply chain. BTW…….i recently traveled back from the sunny carribean and had no issue “transporting” cuban cigars and a high end cigar lighter in my golf bag…………..TSA???………….go figure!…….wher there is a will there is a way!

  3. dalexander
    October 9, 2012

    @Rohs, I think the value for the TREC device is you can tell when a container has been opened remotely and when the products have GPS enabled sub-cartons, it can all be tracked in real time. I agree that people will always look the other way, especially when you have a whiskey shipment where bottles just accidently get “broken” on the dock, but let me underline the nature of the added precautionary tracking capability as a plus to the supply chain. It is the next best thing to having eyes on 100% of the time. ATM are equipped with cameras. Is it possible that containes can also be equipped with cameras to photograph who is openeing and closing said container. Would you agree that a container so equipped might be a deterrent to would be theft?

  4. Ariella
    October 9, 2012

    @Douglas, I'd agree that it would be a deterrent, but it would probably work like the devices meant to deter auto theft. They make it a greater challenge, but professionals still know how to get around them. 

  5. rohscompliant
    October 10, 2012

    Yes I would agree.

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