Driven by the need to tackle the ongoing disruption of global supply chains post-Covid and congested ports, coupled with technology advances in the fields of communications and the Internet of Things (IoT) – ocean freight industry is closing in on what has long been a ‘Holy Grail’ – the ability to constantly track and verify the content integrity of the humble container.

So-called smart containers hold the potential to improve supply chain efficiency and security as they are equipped with digital sensors and GPS tracking devices, allowing for real-time monitoring of key data, such as internal temperature, humidity and the locked status of the box – as well as accurate location control.

Similar technology is already widely used in refrigerated boxes (or reefers), owing to the perishability of the produce inside and the need for controlled conditions in transit. The reefers have integrated electronic units in order to produce their own refrigeration or plug into the ship’s system, and can record regular temperature updates, making these units costly to buy or rent.

Fitting tracking and monitoring equipment to the standard dry cargo container has so far not been deemed cost-effective on account of the sheer number of such boxes – reckoned to be in excess of 60 million – in addition to the associated problems of replacing expendable parts like batteries at such scale.

Now the use of smart containers employing the latest in energy saving technologies is gaining renewed attention, driven by the need to introduce greater efficiency and visibility into a container transport system far less reliable than before. One research and consulting firm estimates that only 3.6% of the global container equipment fleet was fitted with smart technology devices as of the end of 2021, but that this figure could increase eightfold over the next five years.

Hapag-Lloyd announced in late August that it had started installation of tracking devices on the ‘vast majority’ of its dry container fleet, with 200 depots worldwide expected to fit detachable units on some 1.6 million standard boxes by end-2023. These tracking devices will be able to transmit data in real time from each container and, for example, can supply location data based on GPS, measure ambient temperature and monitor any sudden shocks. They “integrate the latest energy-harvesting technology and low-power consumption techniques to ensure that they have ultra-long service lives with high-frequency data transmission,” the company said, without releasing further technical details.

The tracking devices are being supplied by Orbcomm of the US, already an established provider of tracking technology for reefer boxes. It says its smart devices for dry containers take less than one minute to install and feature “an impressive battery life, intelligent solar power management and the latest telematics capabilities” which optionally can support a wide range of wireless sensors using Bluetooth 5.

Meanwhile, another of the world’s largest lines have already taken a stake in Marseille-based smart container company Traxens, which launched in 2012 with the support of liner giant CMA CGM, based in the same city. MSC and Maersk followed suit by acquiring a shareholding and ordering an initial 50,000 units each, later followed by Cosco.

Traxens’ original smart containers came with integrated, rather than detachable, tracking and sensors units. The company describes them as employing an IoT solution based on “breakthrough technology”, which not only the tracks container geolocations but also “detects shocks and monitors temperature and humidity, as well as the open or closed status of container doors”.

The major container carriers’ orders for Traxens units were however all placed in 2019 or earlier before the pandemic hit. It seems reasonable to assume that the logistics of moving around these more expensive boxes – for which clients are required to pay premium – became far more difficult to manage during the ensuing supply chain disruptions, thus reducing their appeal to clients.

In any event, Traxens earlier this year launched a new financing round of $25+ million, allowing it to acquire fellow French company NEXT4, which provides detachable tracking units that can also relay data from sensors inside the containers.

Traxens says that offering customers the choice of two different technologies, using either permanent or removable trackers, ensures “immediate availability” of at least one solution, thereby allowing customers to increase their “freight transparency, cargo security and goods integrity.”

Traceability technologies are evolving rapidly and the rewards for getting it right will be great. For companies and shippers alike, this allows not only for the ability to follow products and goods as they move along the value chain, but also to improve on the capabilities of delivering the right product to the correct place, on time and at a level of customisation and speed which would subsequently result in more competitive costs.

Ultimately this translates to improved stakeholder returns all round while responding to the needs for greater sustainability along the supply chain. In other words, expect smart containers to become much more commonplace in the future.

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