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March 18, 2016 4:08 PM, EDT
Beyond Trailer Tracking
Sensors Add Detailed Load Information to Location Data
Pan American Express Inc.
Sal Verazzi, operations manager at Pan American Express, checks trailer and cargo data captured by its tracking systems from Spireon. (Pan American Express Inc.)

 

This story appears in the March 14 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Pinpointing a trailer’s geographic location is no longer enough for fleets focused on improving equipment utilization and supply chain visibility.

Today, carriers are deploying a variety of onboard sensors that can tell them if a trailer is loaded or empty, when its doors open, the temperature of its cargo or if a pallet moves.

“At one time we delivered dots on a map, and that was cutting edge. Now it is much beyond that,” said Henry Popplewell, president of tracking technology supplier SkyBitz. “Sensors combined with the location capability give you a smart trailer that provides data from lots of different points.”

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Guy Welton, vice president of operations for Werner Enterprises, said companies that aren’t monitoring their trailers are at a disadvantage.

“You don’t know where the trailer is at or the status of the trailer,” he said. “Without tracking you’re relying very heavily on your driver and your customers to tell you where your trailer is and what the status is.”

Werner, which uses technology from Spireon, has installed trailer tracking and cargo sensors on 8,500 trailers, about 35% of its trailer fleet, and plans to expand that deployment to nearly all of its trailers by the end of 2017, Welton said.

Utilizing sensors is becoming the new norm for adopters of trailer technology, suppliers said.

About 60% to 70% of Spireon’s customers have adopted cargo sensors, a dramatic increase from just a year ago, said Roni Taylor, the company’s vice president of industry relations.

“Everybody is so hungry for data and more timely information that the addition of sensors and connectivity on the trailer has evolved dramatically,” she said.

Spireon provides the FleetLocate brand of trailer tracking systems.

Sensor deployments have also climbed at SkyBitz.

“In the first 10 years of SkyBitz’s life, fewer than 10% of our customers also deployed the cargo sensor. That has now increased to north of 50%,” Popplewell said, adding that use of door sensors and tire pressure reporting has also increased.

Meanwhile, the feasibility of collecting multiple types of information from a load has increased as the cost of communication has decreased.

“GPS is standard now, but now we’re adding all sorts of sensor technology onto this,” said Christian Allred, senior vice president of enterprise solutions for Orbcomm, which offers door, cargo and temperature sensors as well as electronic locking mechanisms and RFID tags to track individual pallets.

“In the past, the cost of communication was a disincentive to do a lot of reporting,” added Matt Harris, senior vice president of transportation sales at I.D. Systems, provider of the VeriWise line of asset management technology. “That equation has shifted, and now analytics tools look at that data in a more meaningful way that shows you not only where your trailers are but what they’re doing.”

Cargo sensors can help carriers monitor and adjust the number of trailers they’re contractually required to keep at customer’s site.

Werner shares data with customers to determine the proper size of a trailer pool, Welton said.

“We will work with them to better utilize our equipment and provide better value to our customer,” he said. “It has to be a win-win.”

Improving utilization allows the fleet to have a lower trailer-to-tractor ratio, Welton added. Because of improved utilization, Werner recently added 400 tractors but haven’t had to add any trailers.

Spireon’s Taylor said, “Typically, if you buy another 400 trucks, you’d buy another 800 to 1,200 trailers.”

Werner, which is based in Omaha, Nebraska, ranks No. 16 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

Regular reporting is key for companies such as third-party logistics provider AFN, which uses light, vibration and temperature sensors embedded in loads to tell it more about the state of a trailer’s contents. That improves security and performance, said Michael Meeks, director of risk management at the Niles, Illinois-based company.

“Everybody in the company has access to the information we collect, and it can be used by anyone from our operations department to our sales department,” Meeks said.

Shawn Zerges, director of information technology at Birmingham, Alabama-based SNL Distribution Services, said, “Everybody has their own idea of what they want to track and find. What we want at our company is completely different than what somebody else wants.”

Ultimately, fleets are looking to increase efficiency and decrease costs, but the most important data can vary from company to company, said Gayatri Abbott, telematics product manager for Thermo King, a provider of trailer refrigeration units. The company allows users to customize their reporting and alerts based on what they want to see and have that information delivered directly to their inboxes, she said.

“The less you see your asset, the more you want to know,” Abbott said. “These systems do this.”

At telematics provider CarrierWeb, most customers want to know if the trailer is hitched and if it is moving, but the company can also collect data from door sensors, temperature sensors, fuel sensors and battery voltage sensors, said R. Fenton-May, the company’s chairman.

“Reporting, depending on a company’s business model, can be anything from monitoring fuel usage at a landmark to monitoring how many trailers I have at that company’s distribution center,” Fenton-May said. Most users manage by exception, receiving alerts when something is out of the ordinary, he added.

I.D. Systems employs cargo sensors to provide the loaded or empty status of a trailer as well as the load cycle time. “How long it takes to load and unload the trailer affects detention and allows carriers to benchmark their customer in terms of profitability and asset allocation,” Harris said.

Cargo sensors combined with GPS data can enable detention billing, but technology providers said carriers are more interested in improving asset utilization than recouping detention costs.

“Really what they’re doing is trying to change the behavior of the shipper,” Spireon’s Taylor said. “They want the shipper to know they know when the trailer arrived and was unloaded so they will unload it faster.”

Wes Mays, director of product innovation for Omnitracs, said cargo sensors can alert carriers if customers are using trailers as on-site storage. “Unless you’re getting billed for detention, it is a convenient way to store goods,” he said.

In addition to alerting companies regarding the status of a trailer, light and door sensors can help prevent theft.

“If you’re going from Los Angeles to Kansas City but you notice that in Phoenix, your doors are open for an hour, you might want to send the police out,” Mays said.

AFN uses vibration sensors that let the company know if a trailer or an individual pallet is on the move when it shouldn’t be. “That triggers our security team and logistics coordinators and puts them on high alert,” Meeks said.

For loads that are at a risk for theft, carriers can use GPS-enabled locks that can only be opened once it reaches its intended geofence. “It works with GPS and cellular and instead of a manual opening, you have an electronic opening,” CarrierWeb’s Fenton-May said.

Data collected by sensors also can help improve the maintenance of a trailer, enabling carriers to implement usage-based maintenance plans while also receiving alerts remotely.

I.D. Systems monitors tire inflation sensors and alerts fleet and maintenance managers of an issue. “A driver may be under deadline or doesn’t have a vested interest in the tire pressure,” Harris said.

Sensors can also help carriers catch problems that have gone unnoticed. “If a turn signal or light is out and a driver missed it during the inspection or it failed after the inspection, we can give the fleet manager or maintenance manager visibility,” said Jim Gripp, project director at I.D. Systems.

Installation of trailer sensors can take place at the factory, in the aftermarket or even at shippers’ facilities.

As a third-party logistics firm, AFN relies on shippers to install tracking devices on loads. “If it is a new shipper, we sometimes will visit them, educate them and walk them through the process,” Meeks said.

AFN works with GPS technology provider M2M in Motion. Sean Meister, M2M in Motion’s chief operating officer, said its devices can monitor temperature, tilt and air pressure, which can be important when transporting certain items.

“We carry food-grade items in bags; if they go on the wrong route, those bags burst,” AFN’s Meeks said.

Thermo King’s TracKing temperature-management system utilizes a cellular box inside the refrigeration unit and up to six sensors installed along the entire length of the trailer. The company also offers a wireless or wired door sensor and a sensor to monitor the fuel level of the refrigeration system.

Coastal Pacific Xpress has been using TracKing telematics since 2010 to monitor and control its refrigerated fleet remotely and view the temperature history of a load, trailer locations, fuel levels, door openings and operational data. The carrier, based in Surrey, British Columbia, said that information has enabled it to increase asset utilization, reduce fuel consumption and better manage maintenance.

“We’ve seen a significant reduction in cargo claims and can provide reefer performance downloads within minutes of a request, right on a customer’s dock,” said CPX Vice President Kevin Johnson.

Data downloads show the GPS location of the trailer, door openings and reefer operation, which addresses customers’ concerns over cold chain integrity, he said.

Carrier Transicold also uses a two-way service so carriers can remotely monitor and control the units, and today’s temperature sensors do more than they have in the past, said David Kiefer, director of marketing, sales and product management.

Kiefer said that in addition to providing temperature information, sensors provide data on outside ambient temperatures, electrical voltages and current draw. Certain systems, such as Carrier Transicold’s Range Protect, enable the refrigeration unit to run only if the trailer’s interior temperature deviates from user-defined ranges to reduce fuel consumption and system running time. Door sensors enable reefer units to automatically shut off when trailer doors are opened for unloading.

CarrierWeb Chairman R. Fenton-May said some customers use independent temperature sensors and probes placed inside certain products, such as produce, to supplement information obtained from trailer sensors.

Popplewell of SkyBitz noted that temperature monitoring isn’t limited to refrigerated loads. It also can be important for certain dry van loads, such as pharmaceuticals and electronics.

Meanwhile, tracking technology also has expanded from trailers to intermodal containers and chassis, suppliers said.

Shippers now expect the same level of service for containers as they receive for trailers, Popplewell said.

For example, sensors can enable intermodal operators to locate a chassis and determine if it is loaded or empty.

Fenton-May also said the use of container tracking is increasing. “You get much less mishandling in intermodal if you track your containers,” he said.