IoT technology can ease food supply chain pressures

4 min read

The effects of Covid-19 and Brexit have combined to expose the fragility of food supply chains here in the UK.

While the scale of ‘pingdemic’ – the rapid increase in the number of people being contacted by the NHS to isolate – seems to be receding, there’s little doubt that supply chains in the UK and elsewhere have been exposed as being fragile and lacking resilience.

In addition, supply chains have also come under pressure because of a shortage of lorry drivers exacerbated by the effects of Brexit – the Road Haulage Association recently estimated that there was a shortage of up to 100,000 HGV drivers.

Because of jobs being lost or furloughed during the Covid-19 pandemic together with the effects of people isolating, labour shortages exist in almost all parts of the supply chain, including fruit and vegetable pickers, warehouse and supermarket staff as well as hauliers. The effects of this are gaps on supermarket shelves and food going to waste. Brexit has also led to additional paperwork and associated costs.

The challenge for companies is to make their supply chains more resilient, without reducing their competitiveness. But simply using digital technologies doesn’t in itself create a digitised autonomous supply chain – it also needs connected supply chain technologies across planning, procurement, manufacturing and logistics that work beyond a business’s four walls. An example would be a change in customer demand that can be seen immediately by the entire value chain, so that they can all adjust their plans and schedules accordingly.

Logistics software platforms

What can businesses do to close the gaps in supply chains and make them more resilient? One way is route-planning and maximising pick-up and delivery schedules more efficiently. Logistics software platforms are available to integrate business planning with execution technologies, enabling amendments to be made when changes occur in the supply chain.

Using the example of logistics for fresh food, IoT-based technology can be used to intelligently close any gaps in the supply chain, utilising those hauliers who are available and constructing a more efficient logistical solution, such as re-routing them to pick up more efficiently and ensuring that perishable foods are adequately monitored. A system of connecting farmers with truck drivers, for example, could help avoid the situation of crops rotting because of inflexible collection schedules.

Utilising IoT-enabled technology can substantially improve supply chain visibility and effectiveness. This enables data which describes physical objects to be available centrally in real time and at low cost. A small, battery-powered smart tracking device can be securely mounted onto a container, truck or wagon carrying goods. Once enabled, the device collects real time information about the exact location of those goods at any point along the supply chain and securely transmits that information through an IoT network. The information can be aggregated on a customised app platform, or connected directly to a company’s existing logistics information system.

Using these systems can provide an unprecedented level of information. Logistics managers can use a dashboard to view real time information about the precise location of an asset, the speed at which it is moving, and its estimated arrival time based on current traffic conditions. They can even be alerted if the goods being delivered fall outside a predetermined temperature range or receive significant vibrations or shocks. And when an asset does arrive at a location, automated time and date stamps replace the need to scan RFID barcodes altogether.

Impact on food supply chain

IoT-enabled systems can have an impact throughout the food supply chain, from better crop management to optimising the efficiency of home food deliveries. Warehousing costs can be reduced with pressure sensors, which alert users when stock is running low and help predict future demand and potential shortages.

Another example of optimising IoT technology is with the storage and exchange of returnable assets such as pallets. Freight companies can travel long distances to collect and return empty pallets, which is costly and has a negative environmental impact. By bringing together route data and client actions, supply chain managers can project where pallets need to be in advance of actual demand and optimise route planning, as well as maximising local storage requirements. With better location tracking of pallets, users are able to exchange them using a collaborative online platform and establish the most efficient routes to deliver and recover pallets. This promotes collaboration between businesses and reduces CO2 emissions and empty miles, while streamlining operations and costs.

Looking to the beginning of the food supply chain, farming is another area which is benefitting from IoT technology. Just as in the haulage industry, agriculture has also been hit by shortages of key workers, resulting in food shortages and wastage. While IoT can’t help the employment situation, it can result in better transparency of and control over crops and herds, quality control and efficiencies resulting from process automation – such as controlling lighting, temperature, humidity and soil conditions in greenhouses. As well as digital tools to monitor crop conditions, IoT-enabled drones can help manage those crops.

Sigfox’s Waylay for Asset Management, for example, is an IoT solution application which provides an integrated view and live management system of assets, whether stationary or in transit. It provides full visibility of the position and condition of all assets in transit – not just the vehicles transporting them as with traditional track-and-trace. It interconnects to existing IT infrastructures, systems and any other third-party service, so that users and their customers have an integrated experience. And in order to reduce spoilage of food in transit, solutions such as TempHawk can be deployed to enable the temperature and environmental monitoring of food in real-time from any browser enabled device.

Not only can IoT-based systems provide a granular level of data, but they are also capable of being continuously improved by ‘learning’ from previous delays or issues. The information gathered gives users the insight they need to analyse problems and repair any faults in their supply chains. By harnessing the power of IoT-based logistics, businesses can minimise gaps in their supply chains, maximise efficiencies and provide themselves and their supply chain partners with exceptional levels of transparency and efficiency.