What cold chains can teach us about the dynamics of IoT power

Cold chains are the hidden lifeline of much of the modern world. A cold chain is the sequence of cooled storage and refrigerated transport which keep produce fresh, vaccines viable, and families fed. This often requires very precise controls. For vaccines, a sensitive product, the cold chain is carefully crafted to maintain temperatures typically between two and eight degrees Celsius. Such a tight temperature range mandates a stringent process and the necessarily tight-knit infrastructure to support it.

The consequences for insufficient infrastructure and inadequate processes are severe. For example, India loses nearly 40% of its produce as a result of poor cold chain infrastructure. In developing countries, where refrigerated trucking often isn’t available, keeping vaccines viable those last few miles to the people who need it is a grave challenge.

Fresh produce and meats require more than just refrigerated air on their long journey to our plates. Many products need specific levels of CO2, O2, humidity, and other factors in order to ensure they arrive in a condition that consumers will still purchase and enjoy. Each of these details has to be measured and maintained, logged and assessed. This is, in reality, already the Internet of Things in action. So what new innovations can the emergent IoT offer?

One of the most impactful new developments is a category of wireless technology called low-power, wide-area (LPWA) technology. The basic premise is in the name: it’s wide-area wireless connectivity (like a cellular network, it’s “just there”) that offers low power consumption and thus longer battery life. One of the available LPWA technologies, RPMA, is uniquely positioned as it solves both the global availability problem and the sunsetting problem.

Michael Vedomske, PhD, Principal Data Scientist at Ingenu

Michael Vedomske, PhD, Principal Data Scientist at Ingenu

This first complexity is solved by utilizing the 2.4 GHz universal band, which is available for use in every country in the world. Using a single radio across a global fleet means there is no more need to coordinate and check whether certain fleet assets will be able to operate in a given region. arises as working in a new country may require an entirely new wireless module.

Sunsetting, in the wireless world, is when a technology becomes obsolete and is no longer available for use. A present example of this is 2G data technology sunsetting at the end of this year at AT&T and by end of 2019 for Verizon. Other carriers are following suit globally. The issue for the cold chain is that each time a sunset occurs many costs propagate throughout the chain.

The sunsetting kink is solved by the fact that RPMA always maintains backward compatibility. Because machine and sensor and other IoT traffic is its sole reason for existing, it will not and cannot fall prey to the competing network demands from voice and high throughput data. RPMA simplifies operations and management not just today but forward through time, as there are no sunsets.

Only pay for the right truck rolls

Truck rolls are literally an essential part of logistics. Ironically, they can also be a source of needless expenses. These expenses come when equipment fails, or otherwise need attention from a maintenance crew or repair company. Included in these costs are the sensors and wireless connectivity keeping the information flowing, as well as the batteries used to keep it all running.

Any cold chain vendor understands that hardware costs are only a small part of the total cost of ownership for any system. Each time work has to be done on the equipment—hardware swaps, battery replacement, repairs—it requires maintenance, a truck roll, and paying for that labor intensive work easily outweighs the cost of the hardware itself. One of the most common and incessant maintenance items is swapping or charging the battery.

LPWA connectivity trades lower throughput in order to achieve longer battery life, some as long as twenty years. This is good for logistics, and the cold chain specifically, as longer battery life reduces the number of times human labor is needed to retrieve the sensor and replace or recharge the battery. Each reduction in battery swaps propagated across an entire fleet adds up to very significant savings. Furthermore, this removes steps from the overall process improving efficiency: another kink smoothed out by the Internet of Things.

Get the best for less without the mess

Many vendors utilize passive data loggers in order to keep costs down. But because of the extreme increases in battery life and reduced module costs offered by LPWA technologies, these savings can be pushed into other investments, like purchasing more active loggers. But perhaps even better than just having more active loggers is the fact that you get the benefits of a professionally managed wide-area network. Outfitted with a wide area solution, you can read the data from wherever you want. The data is sent over the air, just like a cellular network, and into your back office solution. Whether your back office is in Minneapolis or Macau, you can get updates wherever your shipments are.

But perhaps one of the biggest bonuses a wide-area solution provides is the professionally managed network. The wireless system is managed by a company that specializes in wireless technology. Their existence is purely around making sure it works and does so reliably. This means your company can focus more on what it is good at. No late night hassle trying to fix the wireless infrastructure. No growing support teams. No managing, operating, maintaining, and conducting emergency repairs of wireless infrastructure. Rather, with a wide-area solution you just get wireless that works, for less, and for longer. That’s the beauty of LPWA.

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