Will a future terrorist act force the U.S. government to impose wireless tracking on product shipments? One expert raised this scenario in a panel discussion that delved into the pros and cons of using such technologies as RFID, Wi-Fi and satellite communications to thwart terrorism, cargo theft and misdirection of goods.
Over the year ahead, terrorists will launch a major attack against the supply chain, predicted Michael Wolfe of North River Consulting Group, during a Web conference presented Thursday afternoon by the AIMGlobal industry organization.
The U.S. federal government will react by cracking down with new commercial cargo regulations, according to Wolfe. But Wolfe added that even in the absence of terrorist threats and knee-jerk regulation, companies will eventually adopt wireless tracking anyway because of such business benefits as greater efficiency and higher profitability.
RFID is only one of many wireless technologies already at work in protecting product shipments against terrorism, smuggling, theft and accidental misdirection, noted David Schrier, an analyst at ABI Research.
Wi-Fi, for example, makes sense in "fixed environments" such as distribution warehouses due to its high bandwidth, the analyst suggested. Wi-Fi is also "excellent in metallic environments," he said.
RFID, on the other hand, is good for "mass market" carton and palette tracking because ultimately it is less expensive than other wireless tools. "Once the initial costs for the [RFID] reader and infrastructure are in place, the costs reduce significantly," Schrier said.
Bluetooth has been tried in some similar ways, he noted, "but no standards [for Bluetooth] have been discussed."
Wireless technologies at the higher end of the cost spectrum include UWB (ultra wideband), satellite and cellular. In the world of cargo shipments, satellite and cellular are niche technologies well-suited to packages requiring close end-to-end tracking over wide distances, at multiple checkpoints along the way. But "for most goods, they are not relevant," he said.
UWB—like Wi-Fi, another fixed technology—comes into play for highly specialized applications, such as shipments of valuables, entailing steel containers with built-in security devices.
Lani Fritts of Savi Technology, one of the sponsors of the Webinar, pointed to distinctions between passive RFID and the pricier active RFID. Like Wi-Fi, active RFID works in metallic environments, he said.
On the business side, the wireless tools can help give companies a "secure audit trail" for better visibility into what happens to packages along the route from sender to recipient, the panelists said.
In addition to cutting a companys direct financial losses, this can bring timelier deliveries and improved satisfaction from customers.
Beyond todays emerging "smart package" and "smart cargo" technologies, panelists also pointed to future directions such as "smart doors" and sensors capable of automatically detecting human presence and whether a transit vehicle is full, empty, or half-full.