Track and trace technologies are revolutionising transport logistics in real time

EM5 17 Tech transport logisticsA new era has begun in the transport and logistics sector. Instead of tables and index cards, telephone inquiries and tedious searches on maps, today one just has to take a look at the computer screen or the smartphone to find out where a delivery is at that particular moment in time. Ground-breaking innovations such as barcodes, RFID, data loggers or GPS provide a wealth of data and are also asserting themselves in the seafood industry.

 My smartphone reports that my order is now on its way to me. The package is expected to arrive at the stated address between 3 and 4 pm. On top of that, a message promises me that by entering the given individual code in the search field on the courier service’s website I can track the whereabouts of the delivery. Messages like these are nowadays hardly more than everyday routine and are not rarely ignored. Probably only few people are aware of the enormous logistical achievements behind this concept, or of the effort that is required for millions of packages to be accurately recorded and correctly distributed so that they arrive punctually at their destinations. And as if this were not enough, the logistics companies also offer as an additional service an option for tracking the package...

"Tracking and tracing", or "Track & Trace", is the technology that enables seamless monitoring of individual deliveries and products within the value chains. Track & Trace has revolutionized the logistics sector worldwide. What might feel like a bit of fun as I look to see how far my package has got on its journey to my front door can hardly be overestimated in its significance for the trade of goods at both national and international level and, indeed, for the whole economy. Track & Trace makes it possible to monitor and report the departure and arrival of an object, irrespective of whether it is a pallet, a container or a vehicle. The exact whereabouts and any movement of the object are identified and recorded so that the delivery route can be accurately traced. A real flood of data spills over the companies: places, times and a lot of other information about the objects are collected and stored for retrieval at any time. Together they constitute the foundation on which almost all traceability systems are today built, whether they span business operations or vast continents. Without Track & Trace, global efforts to fight IUU fishing would have little prospect of success. Track & Trace is the basis for recall actions in the food, pharmaceutical, toys, and other sectors. Over the last few years a whole industry has developed around these topics, offering software and hardware for intelligent traceability systems, service and consulting for almost every application. And this development is ongoing, and the solutions and tools are becoming increasingly powerful and more user-friendly.

Barcodes are now standard in industry

Although in some parts of the global fish industry advanced trace technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID) are in the meantime used increasingly, barcoding is still the most common and most widely used method. Barcodes are not technically demanding, they provide sufficient security, and supply all the information required for reliable traceability systems – and they don’t cost much. This means they are also suitable for small businesses. The basic idea of ​​the barcode is simple: all relevant product data are "translated" into a sequence of parallel bars and gaps of different widths which can be read and processed electronically using optical readers such as special scanners or cameras. In essence, the principle is similar to data encryption in numeric and alphanumeric code formats. Many producers are now going one step further and transforming their product information into two-dimensional data matrix barcodes which allow maximum data densities on an extremely small area because the information is encrypted in black and white “cells”. The best-known example of such 2D matrix barcodes is probably the QR codes which can be scanned by smartphone and then lead the user to pages with additional information.

The 2D data matrix code meets both country-specific and international track & trace regulations. The internationally standardized global trade item number (GTIN), an identification number that is issued only once for products and services, can be integrated into the variable data. Because the data are duplicated in the matrix, they can still be read even if a part of the label is damaged.

With the appropriate software users can generate the barcodes themselves and print them on any number of labels as required. Almost all conventional printing processes are suitable for this purpose, with the exception, however, of dot matrix printers, whose print image will usually not have the resolution quality required for automatic reading. The print quality for barcodes is defined in ISO/IEC 15416, and data structures are defined in ISO/IEC 15418. When printing barcodes users usually choose between three technologies: high-resolution inkjet printers, laser printers that reproduce fine details and allow high speeds, and thermal transfer printers or direct thermal printers.

Cost of RFID technology falling

More recently, radio-frequency identification (RFID) has gained importance as a track and trace solution within the supply chains. RFID is a technology that uses transmitter-receiver systems for contact-free identification and location of objects and living beings using radio waves. This innovative code-bearing technology fulfils all prerequisites for replacing barcodes. Since the cost of using RFID began to fall, this track and trace solution has been more widely used in many areas of the economy. RFID systems always consist of a transponder with the product-specific code (radio label) which is attached to the object, and a reader for deciphering the code. Within a small range the two components communicate via an alternating magnetic field generated by the reader, in the case of longer distances via high-frequency radio waves. Upon contact, data are transmitted and the transponder is supplied with energy. "Active" transponders, which have their own power source, can operate at even greater distances. However, this concept is much more complex than conventional RFID applications and involves higher costs.

The advantages of RFID technology are mainly to be seen in the small size of the transponders, their fast, uncomplicated reading options, and the low purchase price, which is in the meantime often only a few cents. With special printing techniques, RFID transponders, including their stable circuits, can even be made from polymers. As a rule, standard transponders today have about the format of a stamp. For special applications (for example as an implant for individual labelling of living organisms) they can also be produced in the size of a grain of rice. The devices required for reading the transponders are based on a software which manages the reading process and passes it on via interfaces to the corresponding computer systems and databases. Today, the possibilities offered by modern RFID systems with transponders and reading devices are completed by a comprehensive range of peripheral accessories such as RFID hand-, mobile- and desktop printers, labellers and print dispensing systems.  

Barcodes and radio frequency identification are the common labelling technologies on which traceability systems within international goods transport are based today. They enable a high degree of control and transparency in product labelling and are at the same time flexible enough to be able to integrate new requirements resulting from changes to the Food Information Regulation at any time. In addition, they fully comply with the internationally recognized standard ISO 28000 which specifies the requirements for security management in logistics. This also includes Supply Chain Security which defines necessary measures for process validation and risk minimization in supply chains. Hacker attacks, cyberattacks and blackmail attempts such as "WannaCry" recently showed how vulnerable processes within established value chains have become and thus how important it is that these processes can run without interruption. The operational efficiency, market position and competitiveness of companies and ultimately the entire economy are increasingly dependent on the reliability of internal supply chains.

GPS tracking provides precise location data

One of the most important new track and trace solutions which has been implemented in an astonishingly short time in the field of logistics is GPS tracking of moving objects, e.g. trailers, individual vehicles or containers. Questions about the whereabouts, routes or optimal routes, which could in the past only be clarified with great effort or not at all, can be answered precisely today in a matter of seconds. Powerful container tracking modules make it possible to locate, monitor and evaluate the positions of individual containers anywhere in the world with GPS via the Internet in real-time. If you know exactly where your vehicles or containers are located at any time, you will always be in control, avoid overruns of rental periods and have to argue less frequently with customers about unexpected delivery delays. The satellite-based GPS network contributes towards optimizing the use of vehicles and containers, reducing downtimes, and being able to plan delivery routes more efficiently. This lowers costs and allows for a quick amortization of investments in GPS modules. These systems also reduce the risk of theft, embezzlement or other forms of "merchandise loss", which can then usually be explained more quickly and more effectively using this technique.

When it became clear that GPS tracking technology offered truly convincing advantages it was readily accepted by logistics companies. The providers of GPS technology are constantly developing new devices that cover different application areas and continuously expand the scope of the systems. Whether smartphone, tablet or PC, with the right software or app it is possible to monitor and manage moving objects on any platform. Modern tracking modules, for example, operate worldwide in any GSM mobile phone network. It is particularly easy to track and manage the movements of containers and vehicles on smartphones or tablets that have an optional NFC function. NFC stands for "Near Field Communication", a new radio standard for wireless data transmission between two objects that are located close to each other. To read the data, the NFC-enabled smartphone just has to be held briefly near the RFID button of the vehicle or container. Parallel to this, GPS reception is briefly activated in the mobile phone and the exact geographical position of the object is recorded. The mobile phone then transmits via the Internet all the characteristics of the NFC chip (chip number, date and time) as well as the position to the central computer which manages the vehicles and containers.  

GeoFence monitoring improves protection against theft

Modern electronic systems also make transfer or rental of objects easier because all customer data can be recorded easily and directly by smartphone. As is in the meantime customary upon the delivery of a package, the customer confirms the receipt or the correctness of the information in the signature field. This is simple, practical and saves the time-consuming task of filling in forms. Documenting and invoicing are possible in real time. If a person cannot or prefers not to use the convenient NFC function they can also of course enter the data via the barcode or QR code or enter it manually. In any case, all the details of the registered objects are stored in the system. The location is displayed with the complete address (town, street, house number) and as a GPS position in OpenStreetMap in the web portal. This option makes it easy to use electronic log books, complete with all routes, times and work breaks.

An important argument in favour of GPS track and trace is GeoFence sector monitoring. This significantly improves protection against theft. Users are alerted by email, SMS or a signal as soon as a monitored mobile object reaches or leaves a certain area, neighbourhood or address. To avoid unnecessary disturbances during authorized transport the alarm function can usually be adjusted via a time window. The term geofencing, a composite of the words geographic and fence, refers to the automatic triggering of an action (e.g. alarm) when a predetermined boundary is exceeded on the earth's surface or in the airspace.

Depending on the application area various GPS tracking modules can be used, for example self-sufficient mobile systems, some of which have extremely long battery life times of up to 10 years, or stationary installations that are permanently installed. They are usually very robust constructions in order to withstand the harsh conditions that can prevail on board a ship, for example, during container transport. Many have integrated acceleration and vibration sensors which automatically register and report any motion. Depending on the technical equipment and programming the modules report their positions several times a day at fixed times or in real time.

Data loggers provide information on adherence to the cold chain

Although barcodes, 2D data matrix, RFID and GPS offer fascinating possibilities they do not cover all the requirements of traceability systems. The seafood trade is a permanent challenge, not only when it comes to transporting freshly caught, quickly perishable products. The supply volumes sometimes fluctuate from one day to the next which can have a serious impact on transport and logistics service providers. They must always have sufficient transport capacities available even if the weather or the season prevents successful fishing. And this necessitates reliable risk and security management systems that enable them to identify, assess and eliminate disruptions in the supply chain in order to limit financial losses in this tough business. A central aspect of reliability within the supply chain is the perfect functioning of cold chains which prevents loss of valuable raw materials, whether fresh fish or frozen.

In this area, too, track and trace systems have quite a lot to offer. With the help of high-precision, robust and hygienic measuring instruments it is possible to monitor compliance with the required temperature limit values ​ according to HACCP specifications throughout the entire process from the raw material to the finished product. As we all know, it is not sufficient to check and confirm the correct temperature of the delivery only in spot checks during goods receipt. Only permanent monitoring of temperature throughout the entire chain can provide the security that is required in this sector. The range of manual and automatic temperature measurement systems within the food industry is overwhelming. There are precise measuring devices and full-service offers, numerous individual services from repairs to rental equipment and calibration, as well as, of course, professional consulting.

Infrared thermometers are available for manual sampling, for example. These measure the surface temperature of a product without contact in just seconds. Anyone interested in core temperatures is more likely to use probe thermometers. Good measuring technology delivers reliable results without requiring a lot of work. Data monitoring systems and data loggers that measure automatically, document temperature profiles and generate alarms in case of limit violations are used for continuous measurement of temperature and humidity values. These systems should be approved in accordance with EN 12830. They are indispensable if one wants to be certain that the required temperatures have been maintained during road, air, sea or rail transport.