One of the key use cases of cellular IoT is supply chain visibility. Global low-power connectivity is essential for tracking high-value assets as they move through complex, global logistics systems. But IoT asset tracking hasn’t been without challenges. In fact, it’s only now beginning to realize its true promise. A blend of device upgrades and maturing connectivity are creating powerful new opportunities for enterprises struggling to respond to historic supply chain disruptions – and not a moment too soon.
Here’s an overview of historical barriers to asset tracking with cellular IoT, the technologies that dismantle those barriers, and some strong new capabilities made possible by a quickly developing IoT ecosystem.
Creating Supply Chain Visibility with IoT
Enabling visibility in the supply chain often requires a range of IoT asset tracking hardware and location technologies. With the high power demands of cellular networks in the early-to-mid 2010s (2G and 3G), battery-powered asset tracking devices were often not a viable hardware option. That meant supply chain managers were limited to tracking devices that drew power directly from trucks or ships. There wasn’t a good IoT option to monitor individual shipping containers, pallet loads, or even the assets themselves.
The beginnings of a solution came with a combination of expanding low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs). But true progress would also require new battery-powered asset-tracking devices – which meant building a stronger relationship between two formerly antagonistic forces: power consumption and connectivity. That challenge was exacerbated for global supply chain IoT solutions, which also struggled to efficiently handle roaming between networks.
The Challenges of IoT Roaming
Around 2016, mobile network operators (MNOs) began to offer IoT connectivity through LPWANs based on one of two 4G standards: LTE-M (sometimes called CAT-M1) and NB-IoT. Over the years, this has led to a patchwork of network coverage, with some areas favoring LTE-M and others devoted to NB-IoT. The good news is that 4G devices are now considered 5G technologies too, so both types of networks will remain online well into the future.
In the early days of LTE-M and NB-IoT, many asset tracking devices had to be configured for use on either network. That meant a loss of connectivity as assets traveled from LTE-M to NB-IoT coverage areas and vice versa. And that wasn’t the only problem with early cellular IoT roaming; devices themselves didn’t connect to new networks efficiently. Every time a device connected to a new operator’s network, there was a chance of failure – not to mention the fact that devices ate up a lot of battery power scanning for networks.
Until recently, many device manufacturers had to provision their chips to look for specific networks. That meant you had to know which networks were available, and where, so you could program the device to hop from one to another without wasting energy scanning bands.
The industry would need three developments to correct the power-versus-connectivity issue: more LPWAN networks, more roaming agreements between MNOs, and new devices that could leap seamlessly between LTE-M and NB-IoT networks.
Building Global, Battery-Powered IoT Systems for Cellular Asset Tracking
Since 2018 or so, MNOs have risen to the cellular IoT challenge. In August of 2020, the GSMA counted 43 LTE-M networks and 96 LTE-M networks across the globe – fewer than 140 total networks. As of February 2022, that number has risen to 170 networks (60 LTE-M and 110 NB-IoT) around the world. This illustrates the rapid growth in cellular coverage, which contributes to greater performance for IoT asset tracking technology.
Component and device manufacturers, meanwhile, developed stronger cellular roaming capabilities. They began to configure chips for both LTE-M and NB-IoT networks simultaneously. Today, new cellular tracking devices can hop seamlessly from an NB-IoT network to an LTE-M network and back again—and they can do so without inefficient scanning cycles. This multi-network global roaming is one of the key forces driving new possibilities in IoT asset tracking.
New Possibilities in Cellular Asset Tracking with Cellular IoT Roaming
The current era of low-power cellular IoT technology is enabling ‘deploy-once’ battery life on self-powered asset tracking devices. While that progress is essential, it’s just one way IoT tracking devices have advanced in recent years. Here are a few more capabilities available from today’s battery-powered cellular IoT technology.
1. Real-time Supply Chain Management
With a war in Europe and three years of pandemic disruption, supply chains are in disarray. That leads to all sorts of costs, from lost products to delivery delays. More than ever, it makes commercial sense to start tracking assets, from production through delivery, of all shapes and sizes. So the geopolitical situation has driven demand for this type of asset-tracking solution that responds to snags before they turn into disasters.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one manufacturer of aircraft parts lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to a supply-chain mishap. Logistics workers were stuck in lockdown; meanwhile, sensitive aircraft parts sat in a warm, humid warehouse – where they corroded and became unusable. With battery-powered tracking devices and consistent connectivity, the company could have taken steps to protect those assets – especially if those devices also tracked humidity, which brings us to our next point.
2. Indoor/Outdoor Tracking and Condition Monitoring
Combining location and communication technologies on asset tracking devices also allows businesses to track and manage the assets and the condition data that matters to them. Concurrent GPS, wi-fi, and Cell Tower technologies enable seamless indoor-to-outdoor location tracking, and Bluetooth® Low Energy can be utilized to capture additional asset or environment condition data, such as temperature, humidity, impact, vibration, and more.
So today, the aircraft part manufacturer could add Bluetooth tags to check humidity, temperature, and more – which would allow them to spot potential trouble zones before their products are damaged. The combination of Bluetooth tags with roaming cellular IoT expands the availability and types of data businesses can capture with IoT.
3. Theft Prevention with Intelligent Packaging
GPS asset tracking devices also allow businesses to follow their assets wherever they go, improving the odds of recovery after a theft. Imagine a pallet-load of new laptops. These are expensive products, so this unit load is worth quite a lot. Somewhere in the supply chain, you may find a pallet or two missing. With today’s asset-tracking ecosystem, you can put a battery-powered, cellular tracking device into a laptop box and load it onto your pallet with the rest.
This allows you to know the location of your full pallet wherever it goes, whether the coverage comes from an NB-IoT or an LTE-M network. This also helps you find problems in your supply chain; if you notice pallets disappearing at the same distribution center every time, you can address the issue – and end the product loss.
These examples only scratch the surface of IoT asset tracking now that cellular roaming has become viable. Seamless visibility reveals problems; knowing the problems allows you to fix them. How that capability plays out will vary – but it’s all made possible by battery-powered devices that connect to every type of low-power cellular network.
- Asset Tracking
- Bluetooth Location Technology
- Freight and Package Tracking
- Hardware Components