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Is real-time data too late?

May 7, 2022

In the summer of 2010 we were invited to attend the 2nd Annual Internet of Things Conference on behalf of the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) to assess the implications of this fledgling technology for the Petrochemical industry, particularly with respect to the Supply Chain, and to report back. Having never heard of the Internet of Things (IoT)…which seemed at best a bizarre name…we wondered what we were letting ourselves in for. Would we show up in a grey suit and be surrounded by geeks and nerds (and we don’t mean that in a derogatory sense) in jeans and sneakers, and come away at the end of the conference with little more than a daze and a headache? With some trepidation we set off for Brussels.

As it happens, there were some jeans and sneakers, but the majority of the attendees were from high-tech, advanced engineering, multi-national corporations exploring the cutting-edge opportunities from this technology. There was a good mix of early adopters, early observers, and technology developers. So we didn’t feel too out-of- place!

Why are we sharing this IoT stuff some 12 years later?

Our attention was drawn to a LinkedIn post (April 27, 2022), from Lars Jensen of Vespucci Maritime, who reported that “Hapag-Lloyd is now equipping all their containers with live trackers and it will become available to their customers in 2023.” He suggested that this will deliver “informational transparency to the supply chain” and that other carriers will be obliged to follow suit.

Lars pointed out that he had predicted back in 2017 that IoT container trackers would become standard by 2025.

He then made two insightful observations:
• “Trackers in themselves do not add value. The value comes from answering the question: How do I use the data to make different decisions? “
• “Carriers can differentiate their service elements by offering intelligent data services, shippers can outperform their peers by being better at using the information and 3rd party providers can develop better systems to add value across multiple carriers.”

Back in 2010 part of the IoT Conference agenda was focused on Business Eco-systems, and indeed, there was already then a recognition that sensors and trackers alone do not add value. It was reported that IoT enables location-based, time-stamped, real-time decision-making, but that Industry needs to decide where this brings value. Just because you can, doesn’t mean to say you will…there needs to be a sound business case. For example, at that time a European Oil & Gas company was already using sensor-generated data for predictive asset maintenance.

In our report to EPCA in 2010 we presented the following synopsis of the ways in which data could be collected from sensors:

“Smart energy meters talk to utilities…vehicles communicate with repair facilities… shipping containers report to tracking centers…buildings share environmental and occupancy data…home healthcare monitors communicate with hospitals BUT value-creation comes from applications that are built on top of data, with advanced display and visualization technologies – in other words, AUGMENTED REALITY.”
That was in 2010…when the focus was on trying to visualize data in a form to aid decision-making.

Today’s technology has moved on and there is a broad recognition that real-time information from sensors and loggers only reports what has, or at best is currently happening. As well as augmented reality, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are now being used to process huge amounts of historical and real-time data to improve not only ‘informational transparency’ to the supply chain, but levels of predictability and enhanced planning capabilities unheard of 12 years ago.

As we listened to the various speakers at the conference we reflected on the potential opportunities and applications in chemical supply chains. It was evident then that IoT was still at the “early adopter/early observer” stage, with much research still to be done on the technology, architecture, standards, and governance. Small, standalone niche applications were being developed with a focus on domestic and urban community consumers, but there appeared to be industry RFID applications which could create significant value for chemical supply chains.
• Road vehicles. Truck safety, service, maintenance and systems status monitoring, through Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communication.
• Logistics, Supply Chain Management. Enhanced Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI), logistics carbon footprint assessment, intelligent pallets and packaging, refining production schedules, tracking containers, and asset optimization.
• Processing industries. Intelligent containers with hazardous goods, chemical compatibility issues, maximum storage limits, workers operating in hazardous environments, emergency responders.
• Environmental monitoring and recycling

It’s interesting to reflect on the opportunities which were imagined back in 2010, and which regularly appear on today’s supply chain agenda. Some progress has been made over the past decade, witnessed for example in the recent developments in air freight for Covid 19 vaccines, but there are still plenty of early observers to be convinced, and early adopters who haven’t realized that real-time information alone will not necessarily deliver competitive advantage.

By Paul Gooch. Paul Gooch is Managing Director of The Logical Group GmbH and a non-Executive Director of Borderless.

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