By Forrest Hobbs
Choosing the right IoT sensor can be a complex endeavor, particularly as the sensor landscape is varied and evolving rapidly. In this blog, we offer a quick guide for how you can evaluate sensor solutions based on your needs.
Sensors in a supply chain can collect a wide variety of information relating to the products or assets (e.g., reusable cold chain containers / packages) they are attached to. The value of sensors in a supply chain lies in their ability to provide location and condition status (e.g., temperature, shock, vibration, humidity) and insights across the ecosystem, from suppliers through production and distribution to customers. Sensor data yields great value when combined with contextual information in a digital visibility platform that can help you understand the real-time and future state of your interdependent supply chains so that you can make smarter decisions under pressure.
When considering the multitude of sensor options for your use case, keep these considerations in mind:
What are your overall goals? What do you hope to accomplish by adding sensors? Is the prime objective to assure product safety / efficacy, or to provide your operations or customers real-time updates to drive higher customer satisfaction and team efficiency? Understanding the prime driver will help balance decisions across the other nine dimensions covered here.
What exactly do you want to measure? How does this sensor help you measure it? If you don’t measure it, what kind of negative impact can that have on your business? For example, sensors can track temperature, light, humidity, tilt and vibration of vaccines and other medical products. The value of real-time, ground-truth data creates greater efficiency and trust internally among employees and stakeholders. Customers expect transparency and place a high value on real-time data, particularly if it is available on-demand. A foundation of ground-truth data enables organizations to fully embrace a “customer delight” mentality.
How precise do you need the location or conditions measurements? How tight are the required conditions, and what is the impact if these are exceeded? For example, a biotech company that collects and transports time-sensitive biomedical material needs to ensure that their raw material bottles remain within FDA-mandated excursion thresholds when the material is out of the freezer. This occurs when bottles arrive at a facility and need to be transferred to a facility pallet or when pallets are moved to a cold room for sorting. Using sensors to collect real-time temperature/condition data can reduce the burden of maintaining compliance, and the frequency of temperature excursions requiring product quarantine and investigation.
Where does the measurement take place? If it is outside, is the housing rugged enough to withstand water, dust and shock? Does the sensor need to operate in a very cold or very hot environment (e.g., -20 C, +38 C)?
What is the maximum size allowed for the sensor? How will it be affixed to the product or asset? Sensors can differ significantly in size and shape, which is a large factor in determining which sensor to select, particularly with smaller products / assets being tracked.
Is this sensor used within a single warehouse, across a campus, or regionally/nationally/globally in the field? It’s important to identify the particular geographies involved and determine if the particular sensor has connectivity in those regions (in terms of the frequency bands supported and carrier availability). If the sensor is used in a relatively small area (within a warehouse), then BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) may be the best selection (coupled with gateways for internet connectivity). For larger areas, LoRa (Long Range), other WAN technologies or cellular may be better options. These can also be combined to provide the right mix for your use case. For example, you can “platoon” several BLE sensors with a cellular backhauled mobile sensor/gateway to enable many different assets / products to be tracked without the expense of several separate cellular sensors. As a rule of thumb, the wider the range of operation, the higher the cost for both the device and the data services (i.e., BLE is cheaper than LoRa or cellular). However, with the advent of NB-IoT and Cat-M cellular devices (and the rollout of corresponding carrier support), the cost of cellular devices is dramatically decreasing, opening up new use cases.
Another aspect to consider is the type of transportation that is needed (air, sea, land). Suppose the sensor is used on an aircraft, for example. In that case, it must meet strict regulatory and airline requirements to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with other portable wireless electronic devices, airplane radio transmitters and wireless sensor networks.
Three primary considerations are 1) How long does the asset need to be tracked? 2) How often do you need this data transmitted to your visibility platform? And 3) Do you require a GPS level of location accuracy? GPS often results in significant battery drain, and other location measuring approaches, like cell tower triangulation, are much more power-efficient but lack the same accuracy. Many devices are also rechargeable; however, the time between recharging is still an important consideration, particularly for devices which are away from your sites for long periods of time.
The rapidly decreasing cost of sensors opens up far more use cases as options but focuses on ROI and cost justification. Budgets will always be a driving consideration, and there are many variables that help rationalize the expense or narrow the set of options. One variable to consider is how often you would need to upgrade/replace each sensor. Pay particular attention to sensor reusability, as reverse logistics (all operations related to the reuse of products and materials), combined with reusable sensors, make it possible for you to apply a single sensor to multiple journeys.
What kind of additional hardware and software do you need to fulfill these requirements? If you’re looking into a visibility platform, is the provider device-agnostic, or are you limited to a single device vendor or device type? Does the software work with your existing sensors? How is the platform equipped to work with sensors in the future? Look for a solution designed from the ground up so that it can rapidly onboard and interoperate with both existing and future sensors. This ability is key, as it allows you to leverage previous investments while transforming your supply chain with IoT sensors.
Another key consideration, which is often overlooked, is how to administer the sensors. Ensuring you have a centralized and easy-to-use way to configure and monitor the health of your sensors is critical, especially given the expanding variety and volume of sensors that are in the marketplace today.
Sensor data can provide your organization with faster, more accurate insights, which can drive greater efficiencies, improved customer engagement, a reduced total cost of ownership and increased ROI. We’re here to help! Reach out to us if you need any assistance with understanding your options in this constantly changing sensor market.
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