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Container 4.0 Source: fotolia/chrisberic

Across the world, a third of all food is spoiled before it ever reaches the consumer. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, that amounts to 1.3 billion metric tons. A significant proportion of this is due to a loss in quality of the goods during transportation. In developing countries, as much as 40 percent of food perishes while it is being transported.

There are several reasons for this such as variable harvesting conditions, the time from harvest to cooling, or local temperature deviations in refrigerated containers or on vehicles. These can all compromise the quality of fresh food.

The good news is that additional monitoring of the quality of goods does not only allow these problems to be resolved – it also opens up completely new possibilities for transportation management and storage. Integrating such ideas into logistical processes is the aim of a consortium made up of 22 partners from industry and research and financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The task is to make shipping containers smart, which in turn hinges on developing and field-testing suitable sensor technologies. I have been involved in this project bringing in Bosch IoT middleware and in the following article I would like to give you some insight into our work.

Solution approach & implementation: enabling communication from ship to shore

It was clear from the beginning that if we were going to make a container smart and autonomous, we would have to clear a number of technical hurdles. In collaboration with DOLE, we carried out three smart container tests focusing on the monitoring and subsequent ripening of bananas. The bananas were packed in Costa Rica, and some of the packing boxes were fitted with wireless sensors. Once 20 pallets had been loaded into the smart container, remote monitoring commenced. The bananas were then taken to the port by truck (around four hours), following which they spent two full weeks being transported to Antwerp by sea. During this time, we were able to remotely adjust the setpoint settings and fresh air ventilation rate. Upon arrival, the container was transported by truck from Antwerp to Hamburg (one day).

The term 3G stands for the third generation of wireless mobile telecommunication technology. Compared to the previous generations, it is characterized by faster Internet performance.

To establish remote access to the container, we had to optimize what had previously been limited communication from the container back to land. Until this point, communication had been possible only via 3G when the container was on the truck – or by satellite when the container was out at sea. There was no available bandwidth for a cloud connection. So, we developed a freight supervision unit (FSU) and put it on the container. This unit is designed to create an interface between an internal sensor network and external communication. At the same time, the FSU provides a platform that can be flexibly extended to assess any faults with the goods and the conditions in which they are being transported. We can remotely upload a software bundle containing a customized shelf-life model or decision support tool to match the type of goods involved.

Sensor solution for smart container

IoT application: Using temperature and ethylene sensors

We took the JAVA software platform (consisting of Bosch.IO’s OSGi framework and the Jamaica Virtual Machine from AICAS) and made the necessary adjustments for it to work with the target system. We were able to test out the functionality of the communications system during several trial runs by ship and truck on the route from Puerto Rico to Hamburg. To establish the exact shelf life of the bananas, we have to measure the temperature inside the packaging – in other words, inside the packing boxes and pallets. There have to be at least 10 to 20 measuring points in order to record local temperature deviations. To ensure reliable communication, we also have to forward data over multiple hops between the airtight and humidity-proof sensors. In this way we can control the cooling of the bananas. At 11 degrees, which is a suitable temperature for the fruit, we have a green light. As soon as the temperature changes, a remote intervention is made and an alert is sent. The emergency signal is sent to the backend, and the customer (in this case, DOLE) can be directly informed.

Sensor in a banana crate for implementing smart container
Sensors in packing boxes monitor conditions and allow to adjust them in time if necessary.

IoT project benefits

The customer now benefits from being able to react quickly and, if there has been a loss of quality, order new goods in a timely manner. Previously, customers would discover they had unusable goods only when the shipment had arrived in port. Logistical processes are thereby becoming less prone to error and much more agile. Before containers were fitted with sensors, it was common for up to 30 percent of goods to be lost. In smart containers, the rate of loss is only 20 percent. The advantages are that the quality of goods is constantly monitored and consequently improved, losses are reduced, and an agile logistics process is created.

Measurements from the wireless sensors were transferred via satellite on a daily basis. The first estimation of green life, respiration heat, and cooling efficiency was calculated after three days. If a correction was necessary later, the new values were sent immediately – especially if it appeared that the goods were in any danger. As soon as a mobile network became available in the vicinity of the port, the full data could be accessed via a web interface.

Sensors bringing value to IoT applications

Ethylene is a hydrocarbon, a colorless flammable gas, which is widely used in the chemical industry. It is also an important natural plant hormone, used in agriculture to further the ripening of fruits.

In addition to temperature monitoring, we also developed ethylene sensor technology. When climacteric fruits are exposed to a certain concentration of ethylene, they start to ripen. As soon as they ripen, they in turn produce ethylene. At the same time, the amount of ethylene that the fruits emit in this process depends on their level of ripeness – and is therefore fundamental for monitoring their quality. It was within the course of this project that directly measuring ethylene concentration became possible.

By equipping shipping containers with sensors, we can not only be more precise about the location of goods, but also monitor and evaluate what condition they are in. We are considering a follow-up project that will look at the entire logistics process – from loading of the container to supermarket delivery. The idea is to offer new services in collaboration with port operators and logistics providers. To that end, goods themselves are to become part of the Internet of Things. As such they will relay information across all systems and process steps and become an integral part of every process step. In turn they can be fully incorporated into a company’s process structures without any additional manual intervention to adapt goods to their environment. Every structural level within a whole system will need to be able to match these requirements – from sensor technology, communication gateways, cloud-based device management, right through to companies’ business process systems.

Industry 4.0 is already associated with continuing digitalization and the dovetailing of industrial production with modern information and communications technology. Now, as part of Logistics 4.0, these same factors also open up completely new opportunities and vast potential in sea transportation along the entire value chain.

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