On 17AUG21, Unisys announced its new software functionality that allows piece-level tracking (PLT) “for the first time” to those airlines deploying the Unisys Cargo Core application. What we take for granted as private e-commerce disciples – namely being able to track our single parcel all the way to our front-door – is still largely a struggle across the standard air cargo scene.
Of late, we are bombarded with QR codes containing information on individual Covid test results or vaccines. QR codes were invented in 1994 in Japan, originally to track vehicles during their
manufacturing process. Bar codes have been around even longer - since 1951 - finally making their way into the air cargo industry around 25 years ago. The RFID was officially invented and
patented in 1983, though the first recorded use of an RFID precursor was noted back in 1945 when the Young Pioneer Organisation of the Soviet Union gave a hand-carved ceremonial seal of the USA
to U.S. ambassador, Harriman, and proceeded to track his private conversations over the next seven years via the radio-wave activated antenna/microphone contained within it. Yet, this technology
has been even slower to take off in air cargo, Air Canada Cargo, for example, leading the way with its RFID tracking initiative less than 10 years ago, in 2013.
The tools are there, but there is more to the topic
All the above tools can be deployed to designate a single parcel and provide information on its contents, to be scanned or read at various points along the transportation chain. Integrators appear to have little issue to provide piece tracking – often showing moving icons of a delivery van making its way across the map to its destination, all visible to the user at the click of a link. Yet the air cargo industry is a complicated set-up given that processing levels differ depending on the stakeholder involved. A piece is defined as “A uniquely identified physical single unit which may form all or a part of a shipment” (viz “The digital transformation of the air cargo industry and its impact on cargo loss” by Dr Sonia Ben Hamida, Project Manager Interactive Cargo, IATA), and the industry shift from shipment to piece level is still in transition. Shippers may deal with pieces that are built-up by forwarders and delivered as single BUP shipments to airlines, for example, along with respective House and Master Air Waybill information.
… as outlined in IATA’s PLT Task Force
The IATA Piece Level Tracking (PLT) Task Force, made up of airlines, shippers, forwarders, ground handlers, industry associations, and solution providers (including Unisys), which has been around for the past five years or so as part of Interactive Cargo project, roughly outlined the main points at the start that need solving to allow for real-time tracking and interaction along the entire transportation chain. These include: defining a standard for piece identification, describing the business processes (including interline scenarios), looking at the potential tracking technologies available (such as bar codes, RFID, GPS, Bluetooth, 5G, dedicated IoT networks, etc.), and ensuring their technology interoperability, defining a communication protocol (e.g. electronic messaging, data processing systems), and looking into regulatory issues as well as cyber security considerations. All in all, a huge scope requiring analysis and decisions against a back-drop of constantly developing IT solutions, start-ups, and related opportunities.
e-commerce is forcing progress
Aside from security regulations pushing for piece scanning, for example, the rapid increase in e-commerce and thus the change in shipment sizes (smaller and more numerous), is putting pressure on the industry to adapt to more detailed tracking information. In AUG20, Kales Logistics Solutions came up with GALAXY, enabling Cargo Ground Handlers and Airports to track e-commerce shipments at piece level against normal cargo. Other IT service providers, too, such as IBS with its iCargo solution, have piece level on their radar. Rodney Melton, Senior Director, Industry and Client Management, Unisys also points to e-commerce in the Unisys press release, as the reason for the company’s latest development: “With the growth of e-commerce and the increased quantities of special cargo flown, online retailers and shoppers want to know where their individual cargo pieces are at all points of the supply chain – starting with the freight forwarder and continuing all the way through to when it is delivered to the consignee – as opposed to just the larger shipment of which the individual pieces are a part.”
What does it do and how does it work?
Yet, Unisys’ press release, faithfully reproduced across a number of news channels over the past week, remains mysterious as to how it solves the tracking problem, nor does the information on its website offer a detailed explanation. It simply states that airlines can now, for the first time, “track the status and location of each piece of a shipment throughout its journey – allowing them and the freight forwarders who use them to gain newfound visibility throughout the supply chain.” Rodney Melton, Senior Director, Industry and Client Management, Unisys, goes on to say: “This new capability is also critical to suppliers that need information at an individual piece level for more effective planning and storage, as well as for improved visibility so that they can take the appropriate actions to ensure compliance with local customs and regulations. This is especially critical for high-priority and/or perishable cargo such as pharmaceuticals, live animals and food.”
Supply chain visibility is a key requirement
Yes, supply chain visibility is essential to speeding up cargo operations and improving information flow along the transportation chain, thus largely reducing the millions of dollars in loss each year, that are incurred through shipments being spoiled due to not being able to react to problems in close to real-time. The press release points to a DEC20 survey wherein 92% of supply chain respondents state that existing shipment data is untrustworthy, and cites a second study among North American and European retailers which concludes that a mere 16% of the companies surveyed are given real-time key performance indicators for their supply chain.
It remains to be seen how the nine of the top 10 airlines depending on Unisys’ solutions, will rate its latest PLT functionality.
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