Retailers Track Reusable Crates via the IoT

Sensize offers a cellular-based asset-management system using Arm's connectivity and its own Internet of Things sensor and software to provide supermarkets with location data regarding crates used for home delivery in the United Kingdom, as well as companies moving goods in large plastic magnum boxes.
Published: December 16, 2019

Reusable packaging management company Sensize is offering an Internet of Things (IoT)-based solution that enables its customers to view the locations of thousands of crates, pallets or other reusable containers as they are deployed around the world. Supermarkets, manufacturers, logistics suppliers and other companies are using the technology to better manage the use of those containers as goods are moved to customers.

To enable a seamless IoT connection, Sensize is leveraging a connectivity solution from Arm. Arm’s Pelion Connectivity Management service provides IoT global connectivity via cellular transmissions from locations around the world. It provides software that manages the transmitted data. Sensize’s IoT trackers and Microsoft Azure-based software provide location data. Some companies are also employing Sensize trackers with temperature and impact sensors to not only understand items’ locations, but also the conditions to which reusable containers (and, therefore, the goods loaded within them) are exposed.

Sensize’s Luke D’Arcy

The Pelion Connectivity Management service works with local service providers to offer global connectivity so that companies can connect and manage all of their devices via a single contract and user interface, according to Niall Strachan, Arm’s director of product for Pelion Connectivity Management. Arm supports a variety of connectivity protocols beyond cellular as well, such as LoRa and LPWAN, although cellular is the most pervasive. The firm also provides Pelion Data Management, a service that manages the collected data and also generates analytics, as well as related connectivity services such as real-time billing information and an application programming interface (API) to enable integration to a specific user’s system (such as Sensize’s).

Sensize uses the data to provide customers with a view into where their assets are located, says Luke D’Arcy, Sensize’s director, or to issue alerts related to delays or the misrouting of those items. The Sensize technology is in use predominantly by U.K. companies, though it is also being deployed, or is under discussion for deployment, by customers throughout Europe and most recently in the United States, D’Arcy reports.

One example involves the tracking of magnums—large plastic reusable crates used to move everything from food and pharmaceuticals to electronic parts and liquids. The box, which measures 4 feet by 4 feet, has foldable sides and can sometimes end up missing in the supply chain. Some companies have reported losing half of the magnums in their inventory annually. Sensize’s trackers enable them to better view where their magnums were lost, whether during the shipping process, during cleaning or at a customer’s own warehouse.

Additionally, a U.K. supermarket chain is utilizing the technology to track the movements of plastic boxes used to deliver groceries to consumers’ homes. The retailer, which has asked to remain unnamed, uses these reusable bins for deliveries with the goal of reducing the amount of waste that would result from paper or disposable plastic packaging. Tracking those containers as they are delivered to homes, emptied and then returned to stores, however, can prove to be challenging. In fact, the company was losing 2,000 containers per day company-wide. The loss of containers is not only an expense related to purchasing replacements, but it can mean delays in service if the containers are unavailable to transport orders as they come in.

The stores deliver groceries based on customer orders. After a shopper places an order online, a supermarket delivery person brings the ordered groceries to that individual’s home. The goods are loaded into crates measuring 1.5 feet by 2 feet. Initially, store personnel picked the ordered groceries from the shelves, then packed them into disposable bags that were placed in the boxes for delivery. The bags were then removed from the boxes at the shopper’s home.

Arm’s Niall Strachan

To achieve sustainability, however, the company recently began loading groceries directly into the reusable crates. In this scenario, the delivery person must wait at the shopper’s home while he or she unloads the products from the crate, after which the driver returns to the store with the empty container. With this more sustainable delivery method, D’Arcy explains, the firm began finding that crates had gone missing. The company speculated that customers, in some cases, needed extra time to unpack the crates, and that rather than wait, the delivery people must have left the containers at the customer’s home with the agreement that they would collect them later, such as during a subsequent delivery.

To better understand what was happening, the company deployed the Sensize solution. The technology company’s tracker, which it manufacturers itself, includes a cellular subscriber identity module (SIM) card, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, a battery, and a chip with an ID number unique to that device. It can be attached to a crate and thereby create a digital record of that container’s movements and lifespan.

As each crate is loaded with a particular consumer’s products, it is transported to that consumer, then is unloaded and returned for cleaning and reuse, and the device tracks each location. The location data is calculated based on the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity within its vicinity, and is forwarded via cellular connectivity to the application using the Pelion Connectivity Management infrastructure.

When Wi-Fi is used, for instance, the tracker’s firmware can capture Wi-Fi node addresses and thereby approximate the location in a method similar to the Context SDK provided by Skyhook, which achieves location data within about 50 meters (164 feet). Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmission allows a greater location accuracy when a beacon is deployed, such as at a delivery address, in a warehouse, or at a specific warehouse bay or dock door. The data can be referenced against the supermarket’s own delivery schedule in order to identify the home to which the crate was delivered.

However, D’Arcy says, the solution’s value goes beyond determining a crate’s real-time location. “You may want to know where all of your items are right now,” he states, “but you also may want to know about lost items—and the important thing to know about lost items isn’t where they are now, but where they were lost.” That can lead to driver training or tighter management of the third-party washing company, for example, enabling a firm to understand the leakage point where creates go missing.

Moreover, the Sensize tracker devices offer sensor data. “With electronics on the packaging,” D’Arcy explains, “a company can pull additional data,” such as temperature and shock levels. Sensor data can help companies reduce the incidence of food waste, he adds, because if a store finds that food is not in saleable condition upon arrival, sensors could help supply chain members and the retailer understand where the problem may have occurred, and thus hold that party responsible. The data can also enable retailers or supply chain members to improve areas where problems tend to occur, so that they can prevent future spoilage or breakage.

Examples for fresh food can involving monitoring everything from meat and fresh vegetables to products prone to breakage. “In that way,” D’Arcy says, “you can find out who left something out in the sun,” or who might have dropped a crate and thereby broken goods such as chocolate bars. “For avoiding food waste, it’s going to be increasingly important.”

The supermarket that is tracking its crates’ locations may opt to use the sensor data in the future, D’Arcy reports. “Were getting initial data now,” he says, working with stores where the rate of loss is especially high. That data might not prompt the company to collect the missing crates, but it would enable it to better understand where they are and when more containers may be needed in specific areas. While most commercial deployments are taking place in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, Sensize expects several U.S. installations to launch in January 2020 for the supply chain management of food or other products flowing through manufacturing or to the store.

Arm’s Pelion Connectivity Management service streamlines the process of connecting and managing IoT devices on a global scale, Strachan says. Dealing with multiple cellular network operators is an exhaustive challenge for IoT solution companies, he adds, so Arm offers a single layer with a user interface, APIs and data-routing infrastructure. Hundreds of its customers are currently employing the solution for everything from smart metering to providing passenger Wi-Fi on trains or buses.

Sensize began working with Stream Technologies (which was acquired by Arm) to develop its cellular connectivity network when Sensize was founded about two years ago. The company could use other IoT networks, such as LoRa, NB-IoT or Sigfox, D’Arcy says, but it opted for cellular connectivity with the Pelion solution, which promised to be more reliable and ubiquitous. “Our customer wants to pay for access to a trusted network,” Strachan explains.

Arm acquired Stream Technologies approximately18 months ago to provide the connectivity management layer of the Pelion IoT platform, which the company says delivers device, connectivity and data management services to customers, such as digital signage, smart metering and fire systems. Many Pelion customers are module or hardware manufacturers that are providing IoT-based sensor functionality so they can offer value-added services, thereby creating repeated revenue. Typically, Strachan says, the Pelion system can be set up within a matter of days.