Going for full visibility: How digitisation is changing container management

container management

Digitisation is taking container management to a new level and opening the door to unprecedented visibility.

Air New Zealand wants to get a better handle on where its containers are at any time. To that end the airline signed up in September with cargo IT provider Descartes Systems Group for its Core Unit Load Device (ULD) tracking solution. The offering, which utilises Bluetooth technology, automatically tracks mail, parcel and freight shipments at the ULD level.

“With the dramatic rise in e-commerce, Air New Zealand is handling a growing volume of air cargo and the industry’s traditional manual practices for tracking freight are no longer sufficient,” said Jonathon Dale, the airline’s manager commercial, cargo commercial and ventures, when the agreement was announced in September. “With the Descartes system, we now have a digital solution to identify the exact location of an airfreight container and the status of its load at any given moment.”

ULD provider Unilode, which owns and manages a global fleet of more than 140,000 units, has also embraced Bluetooth technology for the digitisation of its pool. The company is in the middle of a massive roll-out of Bluetooth tags across its ULD fleet and readers in repair stations, warehouses, handling locations and airports. By the end of September, it had installed 5,000 tags and was stepping tagging up at an accelerated pace.

In the first stage Unilode fitted tags into containers for customers that use dedicated ULD fleets. Tackling the neutral pool of boxes had to wait for the official approval from all participating clients, says Benoit Dumont, the company’s CEO. By late September all of Unilode’s clients in Europe and the US had signed, but some agreements in Asia had not been finalised.

The roll-out will proceed from major gateways to smaller airports. Dumont reckons that it will take about 18 months to cover 70-80 per cent of the network, which should be a good critical mass, he says.

Feedback so far has been good, he reports. “We are at the early stage. We’ve done a lot of tests with perishable cargo like flower and pharma shipments. All have been very successful,” he comments.

Container management: cargo storage
Containers have multiple sensors for temperature management


While tags offer considerable advantages over barcode use on the ground, arguably the biggest advantage is in the air, as customers are going to be able to monitor ambient shipment conditions like temperature and humidity during flight.

In August Unilode and OnAsset Intelligence completed a set of trials of a smartphone app to track ULDs by connecting to an aircraft’s wifi system. Participants in the tests, which were conducted on the Hong Kong-Zurich route, could check location, temperature, humidity and light conditions.

“The technology works. We’re now about to commercialise it,” Dumont says. He adds that this feature will be introduced airline by airline, but there may be a faster track. “Some plane manufacturers could be interested in that solution,” he remarks.

Apart from the commercial opportunities that the tags make possible, airlines stand to benefit from better visibility where their containers and pallets are. Most airlines have as many as 20 per cent of unreported units, which they cannot locate. With technology, this can go down to 5 per cent, which means significantly less investment in ULDs, Dumont says.

The game is about much more than mere access to shipment data. “You have a tag which provides four or five bits of information. It transmits information on status every eight minutes if it’s close to a reader,” says Dumont.

Given its large number of customers, Unilode decided it needed to team up with a specialist to contextualise this information, for instance that a shipment has not moved in eight hours. This partner can sort data through an algorithm, which can identify data that is relevant and automatically alert the customer.

To that end it signed a strategic agreement with Nexxiot this past summer, a pioneer in digital supply chain management solutions. In addition to the required functionality, Nexxiot has set up a neutral user interface for Unilode customers to view data about their shipments.

Container management: cargo storage
MEAG opened its cargo facility in June 2015


“We could have built it ourselves, but we looked who was much closer to the finish line,” says Dumont. This way, Unilode can focus on other aspects, primarily the roll-out of the tags across the fleet at this point. “The challenge is every airline in the pool needs to approve our technology – in some cases every lane,” says Dumont. “In some cases, the process can be slowed down by airport authorities that want to clarify some aspects,” he adds.

This predicament sounds familiar to Jonathan Neeld, director at certification & regulatory compliance at cold chain packaging solutions provider CSafe Global. In addition to getting the green light from airlines for the acceptance of its active temperature-controlled containers and logging devices, it is dealing with the different requirements of forwarders and pharmaceutical firms. The latter have to validate data logging equipment, he says.

CSafe has made good progress with the clearance of its top-of-the-line RAP containers, which were introduced last year. Major carriers like Swiss WorldCargo, Lufthansa, United and American have accepted the unit, while the likes of LATAM Cargo and LOT Cargo signed master lease agreements for CSafe’s active units this year.

“We quickly gained approval by all the major commercial airlines,” reports Neeld. The RAP unit uses the company’s proprietary Vacuum-Insulated Panels (VIP) technology in conjunction with a novel compressor-driven cooling and radiant heating system to maintain a precise set point temperature; while offering up to 20% larger payload capacity than competing systems, according to CSafe.

In addition to the VIP technology, the use of multiple sensors for the temperature management system and air circulation around the product and under the floor, CSafe’s active units’ performance is backed by its Preventive Maintenance Rebuild Programme, notes Shea Vincent, the firm’s global product manager. On top of regular inspections after each use and annual validation test and scheduled maintenance, CSafe takes every ULD apart, tests each component and reassembles it every three years.

While the technology has become more sophisticated, using it should not be more complex. “The industry has a high turnover of staff, so we make sure that training is easy,” says Neeld.

Container management: Container carrier
Several major carriers have accepted the CSafe RAP container units


It is probably more challenging to work through the various types of lease agreements that CSafe offers. “We have many different lease models to fit customers’ needs. You have to offer multiple solutions,” remarks Vincent.

According to Neeld, longer term leases usually produce better utilisation rates, which means that the required fleet of units does not have to be as large. On the other hand, single use has come into fashion, reports Vincent.

Unilode has launched a short term leasing product, which started in a handful of stations. “We see that as a natural add on to our product,” comments Dumont.

Getting hold of a container at short notice should not be a problem. “We use various options for relocation,” says Vincent. “We have AI and a full-time team working to predict container need locations, making container availability easier to manage.”

Likewise, dropping off a CSafe container at a destination after a single trip is not an issue and does not always incur a special charge. With single trip options and a rapidly growing network of service depots, fees associated with drop locations are on the way out for CSafe customers, says Vincent.

Unilode is beefing up its support infrastructure on the ground. Earlier this year it built a new ULD and galley cart repair centre in Hong Kong and is currently building another in Mumbai. One more is taking shape in Incheon, following a contract with Korean Air.

“We have Dubai on the map and we look at some places like Malaysia. We will go where our customer takes us,” says Dumont.

In terms of ULD technology, he reckons that aluminium containers are making a comeback. “They are easier to repair and appear to offer the best trade-off between weight and durability,” he notes.

With regards to special units like fire-retardant or folding containers, he has not seen any change on the landscape. “They are still there, it would still make sense, but no one is quite ready to pay for it,” he says.

On the temperature control side, nothing new is on the horizon in terms of new materials that would shift the balance between weight and strength. Neeld does not see anything new on the scene for a while there. “New materials tend to be expensive,” he notes. “It’s a question of weight, cost and usability.”

Meanwhile, demand for faster and better access to and use of data is bound to continue on its upward trajectory: “There is a lot of discussion around real-time access,” remarks Neeld. At this point CSafe is offering post shipment data free of charge, but it is currently looking into real-time access, he adds.

Dumont thinks the industry still has some way to go with digitisation. Everybody wants it, but there are reservations about sharing data and installing readers, he finds.

“In the US you can order a pizza and check when the order is prepped, in the oven, quality checked, out for delivery or ready for pick-up. On the other hand, shippers often sent very expensive cargo and don’t know where and in what condition it is,” he says.

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