Lost and stolen freight is estimated to cost the logistics industry over USD 30 billion a year. PLM Industries had a bold idea to stop these losses—but needed help turning its concept into reality.
PLM is working with IBM and Ficosa/Idneo to build the Smart Pro Tracking System—an innovative freight tracking system that provides real-time end-to-end traceability for every item in each shipment.
Real-timetracking sends alerts when freight is separated or theft occurs
Helpsclients create reliable same-day delivery services and boost fulfilment rates
Revealsnew ways to improve productivity and efficiency in the logistics chain
Business challenge story
Shaking up shippingThe logistics industry has an expensive problem: lost and stolen freight is estimated to cost upwards of USD 30 billion every year. It’s not just the loss of goods that companies have to account for, but also the cost of supply chain interruptions, extra customer contact and service, expedited deliveries for replacement shipments, higher insurance rates, and even lost business.
So what are logistics providers to do? Investing in freight tracking systems can go a long way to mitigating the many risks posed to goods in transit. However, existing tracking technologies, such as radio frequency identification (RFID), can be prohibitively expensive to implement on a large scale and don’t provide end-to-end visibility of shipments.
Tim Parker, President of PLM Industries, elaborates: “The problem with technologies like barcodes and RFID is that they only work at short range. You can scan packages as they move in and out of a warehouse or depot, but beyond that you have little visibility of where the package is actually going. So it’s very easy for cargo to be routed incorrectly or to go missing—and for no-one to notice until the shipment fails to arrive at its intended destination.”
PLM Industries, a startup from Southern California, is planning to change all that with its revolutionary Smart Pro Tracking System, built on Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.
Vernice London, Vice President of PLM Industries, explains: “The Smart Pro Tracking System provides near real-time, end-to-end visibility across the entire logistics chain. Our idea was to create IoT tracking devices that can be attached to every single item in a shipment and communicate their exact location at any given time. They are inexpensive enough to be used once and, critically, they allow each and every item to be tracked separately. So if one package from a shipment starts heading in a different direction from all the others, for example, it’s likely that it has either been routed incorrectly or stolen. With this insight, providers have a better chance of catching thieves and correcting mistakes before it’s too late.”
IBM helps turn a bold vision into reality
PLM Industries had hit on a groundbreaking idea—but the company was going to need help getting it off the ground. After partnering with engineering firm Idneo Technologies to design the devices themselves, the startup turned its attention to developing key back-end functionalities—which is where IBM came into the picture.
Vernice London recalls: “We took part in an IBM® Cloud™ Garage Design Thinking Workshop in San Francisco, which was an amazing experience. We came into it with a rudimentary UI and about a million ideas for possible features. The Cloud Garage team helped us see that we were going about things backwards—we had been caught up in our enthusiasm to solve all the problems of the logistics industry at once, when we really needed to focus on user needs and priorities.
“Following the ‘design thinking’ approach helped us to pare our concept down to the core functionality we needed to create a minimum viable product [MVP] that would actually be useful for our clients, instead of giving them something with so many features that they would find it difficult to use.”
Vernice London adds: “We didn’t just cover product design—IBM went out of their way to provide business acumen and helped us build business cases to make sure we translated our ideas into a profitable product.”
After the IBM Cloud Garage workshop, PLM Industries built a click-through demo of the Smart Pro Tracking System that it could present to prospective clients in sales meetings. The team then selected the base functionalities needed to create a working prototype for an MVP, powered by IBM Cloud Data Services solutions.
The Smart Pro Tracking System devices will be built on two foundational IBM technologies: IBM Cloudant® and the IBM Watson IoT™ Platform. Geolocation coordinates, temperature readings and other data captured by the devices will be transmitted to the Watson IoT Platform using the lightweight MQTT messaging protocol, and then stored in the Cloudant database.
A fully managed NoSQL database service, Cloudant offers the perfect fit for PLM Industries’ use case. As data from the devices is sent in JSON format, using Cloudant means that this data can be ingested and stored in a JSON document store, without the need to convert it into SQL tables. And with PLM Industries planning to scale both geographically and in terms of transaction volumes, Cloudant can scale to meet these ambitions much more efficiently than most traditional relational databases.
PLM Industries is gearing up to launch its MVP in mid-2017. The company already has several clients who are interested in trialing the product, and following a further round of development and feedback, the aim is to roll it out more widely. The PLM team believes that the potential market for the Smart Pro Tracking System is immense—beyond logistics providers and national retail chains, the devices could be used to provide baggage tracking for airlines, and many other use cases.
Delivering shipments on time, all the time
With the Smart Pro Tracking System, PLM Industries is set to transform the way that goods are transported, delivering the complete visibility that shippers need to prevent theft and loss.
“The Smart Pro Tracking System can send instant notifications when any anomalies are detected during transit, so our clients can react fast to correct any problems,” notes Tim Parker. “For example, if individual items get separated from a shipment, it will trigger an alert, allowing shippers to intervene before they go too far astray, and make sure all their goods get to the right destination.
“Having this end-to-end insight will help our clients to reduce the likelihood of freight being lost or stolen, potentially saving them from expensive direct losses and other costs. We also believe that it will go a long way to improving customer satisfaction and retention. By reducing the risk of late or lost shipments, providers will have fewer complaints from customers whose items haven’t arrived on time, as well as avoiding the effort and expense of replacing and re-delivering products.”
In addition, as demand for faster logistics services (such as same-day delivery and in-store pickup) grows, the ability to track shipments in near-real-time will make it easier for companies to meet increasingly narrow delivery timelines.
Tim Parker states: “More and more retailers are turning stores into online fulfilment centers, where customers can pick up items they have ordered on the web. Many of these customers expect same- or next-day delivery, which puts retailers under huge pressure to move items from warehouses to stores quickly and reliably. Having near-real-time logistics tracking is a huge help in ensuring that goods arrive when and where they need to.”
For PLM Industries, logistics tracking is just the beginning—the company has big plans for the Smart Pro Tracking System, such as incorporating analytics to help clients improve supply-chain efficiency and rolling out additional types of tracking applications.
“Once we have amassed a solid base of data, our plan is to unleash IBM Watson Analytics™ on it to analyze patterns and performance across the logistics chain,” says Vernice London. “For instance, we can look at different shipping routes and pinpoint areas where shipments are more prone to delay or even theft, and re-route drivers accordingly. We can also monitor truck drivers’ schedules to make sure they are complying with maximum driving-time laws, or track their rate of on-time deliveries. All of this will help logistics providers operate more efficiently and meet their service targets.”
Tim Parker adds: “There are also opportunities to spin out separate solutions for tracking vehicles and drivers, and even a logistics brokerage app, which would allow customers to pick the fastest or most cost-effective logistics service for a particular shipment. The possibilities are huge, and thanks to IBM, the opportunities are there for the taking—we know we can call on them to deliver the technology, know-how and development tools we need to turn our ideas into viable solutions.”
Vernice London concludes: “We have come a long way, and IBM deserves a large share of the credit. In less than a year, we’ve been able to produce a working app, and showcase it to some of the largest retailers and logistics companies in the world. IBM has done much more than help us develop a system, they’ve helped us build a business. We can walk into sales presentations with confidence—no matter how big the prospective client is—and be taken seriously, which is absolutely priceless.”
About PLM Industries LLC
PLM Industries LLC specializes in new technology development across a variety of industries, including automotive, communications, consumer products, and logistics. Founded in 2014, PLM Industries develops its innovative offerings with support from strategic partners IBM, Idneo, and Ficosa.