Where is my shipment?

Otso Massala

Tracing and tracking of on-line purchases is commonplace for most of us. 

As soon as we click the “order” button, a log of your delivery’s whereabouts becomes available. Major players such as FedEx, DHL and Amazon have responded to customers’ needs and wishes to know where the shipment is in the delivery process. That feeling of having the situation under control while seeing a dot moving on a Google map has become a major selling point for some customers.

That selling point is courtesy of tracking and tracing technology has improving rapidly in recent years. Such system are used for tracking vehicles, containers, parcels and other items. Satellite-based GPS receivers can be integrated into the smallest of devices with modest cost. 

Therefore, we now have not only smart phones, but also GPS keyrings, watches and other devices easily available for cheap. For most of the tracing and tracking applications, GPS is connected to internet via radio connection, such as a mobile network or Wi-Fi. Alternatively, a low weight radio-frequency identification sticker, or RFID, can be used in some tracking applications with even lower cost than GPS.

Ability to track items is a major improvement in the transparency of the supply chain, and when combined with blockchain (a ledger where transactions of cybercurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are recorded), we are moving toward the goal of knowing where each item is from, where it is at the moment and where it is headed. 

Increasing supply-chain  transparency provides tangible benefits for resource allocation and optimization: the right vehicle for appropriate loads, the right loading dock for the right trailer and the right driver, coupled with the fastest routing.

Instantaneous and continuously up dated inventory lists eliminate the need for stock take. Transparency of shipment locations helps both shippers and truckers in booking and planning tightly, rerouting trucks, scheduling warehouse labor and adjusting delivery windows. All cargo is waited on by somebody, and knowing whether the vehicle is on time, behind or ahead of schedule of schedule allows them to make pro-active decisions. 

Tracking monitoring systems provide a message when the package leaves its designated area or route. The first response might be a call to the driver to see if they are aware that they are heading in the wrong direction, or to question a foreman regarding a particular equipment’s storage arrangement. If necessary, an alert might be sent while following the current location of the package.

Simultaneous technical development in GPS and roll out of the 5G mobile network will be making tracking and tracing ubiquitous. In a few years, 5G networks will be able to connect vast numbers of devices, meaning the position of almost anything can be found on the internet. That might open avenues for reducing loss and theft as inexpensive and tiny sized trackers can be attached to physical goods.

Decision makers should be aware that tracking and tracing technology will infiltrate most businesses handling physical goods or providing services outside of their own business address. 

For consumers, it is a welcome benefit when that pizza, chimney sweep and overseas parcel can be followed on screen in real time. For businesses the benefits might be even more crucial as the potential efficiency gains in supply chain are very significant.

Otso Massala is associate professor of finance and supply chain management in the John L. Grove College of Business at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa. His email is OAMassala@ship.edu.