Everyone is talking about the “The Internet of Things”, or IoT. To the uninitiated, this might sound like science fiction, depicting a world of smart and intelligent refrigerators, appliances, smart homes and ‘smart’ everything. But what does the IoT actually mean for the cold chain industry? In this article, we’ll look at the reality of IoT in the food cold chain, and how it can and is already enhancing food safety.
The IoT has been evolving over many years, and you could say it goes as far back as the bar code was conceived in 1949; or to 1995 when Siemens introduced its first remote monitoring module for tracking and tracking applications (see ‘A very short history of the Internet of Things’). The IoT market has grown over the years, and despite the buzz and futuristic vision it may present, it is very much here already. According to market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC), a transformation is underway that will see the worldwide market for IoT solutions grow from US$1.9 trillion in 2013 to US$7.1 trillion in 2020 (see announcement here).
For several years, Ericsson and Cisco have been forecasting that there will be about 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and now ZTE predicts that there will be 100 billion connected devices by 2020, of which 50 billion will be connected sensors making up the IoT.
IDC defines the Internet of Things as a network of networks of uniquely identifiable endpoints (or ‘things’) that communicate without human interaction using IP (internet protocol) connectivity – be it locally or globally.
In the food cold chain, the ‘things’ could be trucks or warehouses. The ‘IoT’ enables sensor networks to be deployed in all parts of the cold chain – in production, in shipping and in storage. Using a mobile connection, data from the sensors can be transferred in real-time to the cloud, where it can monitored and analyzed.
The benefit of such an IoT sensor network connected to the cloud is that it helps in monitoring parameters like temperature, humidity, and whether a door is open or closed. If there are temperature excursions, or a door is open, then the connected sensors in the trucks or in storage act as part of the IoT network to provide ‘real-time visibility’ of the status of the food products.
In the case of the platform available from Dyzle, the sensors are connected via a local wireless gateway to the mobile phone (GPRS or UMTS) network so that they can constantly send temperature and other data to a central data collection point or hub. In Dyzle’s platform, it is sent to the cloud (internet), and the data is interpreted and presented to the user in a ‘personal dashboard’ format that shows the parameters important for that customer.
Such a platform provides logistics managers, quality managers, and other responsible persons for the cold chain with the user interface that provides a visual display of key parameters, and provides real-time alerts. These alerts might warn a responsible person that the temperature of the shipment has exceeded a pre-defined safe temperature range, or that a door is open causing the temperature to rise above the safe temperature range for the food. By providing the alert, it is possible that corrective action, either manual or automated, can be taken instantly so that food safety can be ensured.
An additional benefit of an IoT system like Dyzle’s is that data is stored in the cloud, and therefore the system has the ability to provide automated compliance reporting of the entire history of the temperature and other parameters.
To demonstrate the latter, one food retail chain in Europe that uses Dyzle’s network has multiple outlets, and in order to provide proof of its compliance to HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) requirements, must record temperatures across its chain. This involves completing 28 pages of reports – which can be very time consuming.
However, with the Dyzle platform, the food retail chain is able to automatically register the data in the cloud (internet) for all its stores, since measurements are sent directly from the sensors in each outlet via the mobile network to the cloud. The data is recorded and stored in a pre-defined format as required by the compliance reporting procedure. This completely removes the burden of manually completing the paper records of temperature and other parameters.
This is just one example of IoT as applied to the food cold chain. As the example illustrates, the IoT is already here in the form of trucks and storage connected with sensors that provide monitoring of key cold chain parameters that must be monitored to maintain the safety of temperature-sensitive food products. The sensor network provides complete real-time visibility of the cold chain by constantly providing relevant data from all critical points in the supply chain. This in turn helps logistics and quality managers to assure their customers and management of the safety of their products.
The IoT is hence not a future vision, but is here and in use now. In the future, there will be even more connected networks monitoring all parts of the cold chain, which will generate significantly more data. The key issue then will not be about real-time monitoring, since that will be a given. The more important issue will be in analysing and interpreting the data, and ensuring traceability and compliance to provide assurance of food safety. This is the real future of IoT in the cold chain.