Interoperability is vital: leveraging data in the value cloud

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The 1435mm rail track gauge. The 20ft Intermodal Container. The shaped aluminum box that fits snugly into a 747’s belly. When you’re moving freight between cities and across borders, there’s no argument against interoperable hardware.

But hardware isn’t the only part of transport that benefits from standards.

The traditional supply chain — never a straight series from A to B in any case — is evolving into a far more complex web of relationships between goods, funds, contracts, customer expectations, and a thousand other data types. Interoperable fixtures and fittings are just the entry ticket. What matters today is data. A pyramid of points covering every conceivable metric, every one of them with potential to make you more competitive.

Like most Big Data stuff, it’s an emerging discipline. So, in this article, we’ll take interoperability up a notch. Away from the well-known and (mostly) functional synchronization of corner fixings and documents … and into what matters in our age of connected communities: interoperability in the value cloud that surrounds every consignment you handle.

Understanding information: Value for the taking

At every point in a shipment’s journey, data is generated and (if you’re lucky) acted upon. The trouble is, most of it’s out of easy reach, in the minds and practices of your people. Not systemized, not connected to the Big Picture, and often not even noted down for future reference.

When Forklift Fred can’t find a container in the yard, he’ll know where to look next, based on his experience of where loads land at busy times. If that fails, he knows to ask Kan-ban Karl, or check with Maggie on manifest. His skills, and those of thousands like him up and down the supply chain, keep your workflows functioning. But there are three problems here.

First, Fred might die (or—less dramatically—resign). And if he does, his tacit know-how goes with him, taking time to re-emerge in a new hire. Second, his actions — however useful in the moment — are reactive, not forward-looking: he will solve the same problem, time and time again, wasting the same ten minutes six times a month. Along the supply chain, all those minutes add up.

Third and biggest problem, though, is the way the data generated by that interaction is not captured. Which means it can’t be used for improvement. If management knew Driver Dan always puts green boxes in an inaccessible corner of the yard, they would adjust the loading schedule or rearrange the Kan-ban area, taking action to remove the bottleneck for all time.

Fred and Karl and Maggie are a great team, but their tacit knowledge is covering up a job a machine should be doing—chasing down data points that interrupt a process. And in the $1tn/year business of global supply chains, that’s a major drag.

Making the cloud visible: Sensing with IoTware

So, Fred knows where the green container is—but it’s taken him ten extra minutes. What if the container could tell him where it is — better still, sound the alarm when it realizes it is being put down in a sub-optimal place? Or amend an invoice that needs changing due to a missed deadline.

Of course, this happens at seaports all the time, with the layout of 20,000 boxes on a SuperMax planned out in advance for optimized unloading. But very often, this intelligence is too chunky, applying only at the container level, and often not crosschecked with data gathered within the container itself. Even today, few containers carry any onboard intelligence. Thanks to disruptors like Nexxiot, this is changing.

The connecting theme is the “Internet of Things”. Not phones and laptops but sensing devices — many of them small and fairly simple — each collecting data along a given axis, and reporting that data to interested parties in real time. Perhaps it’s humidity and other ambient conditions within a chemical shipment. Perhaps it’s chain-of-custody data for pharmaceuticals or currency. Or precise positioning to anticipate a delay. (Ten meters may not be much geographically, but you know it makes a huge difference if it’s the wrong side of the customs fence at 5.30pm.)

The key differentiator with IoT is that data is reported according to standards. Interoperable standards, the same ones that govern your phone’s interactions with your bank when you make a payment, or your TV when you’re Netflix-‘n-chillin’. IP, http, SSL, Jason, REST, IEEE: you don’t need to know the acronyms and protocols. Just understand that they can interoperate. Because while they’re gathering different data, they’re all talking the same language.

Extending beyond: Deciding what matters

Once an array of sensors and data points can interconnect, they can interoperate. Joining the dots and giving you the Big Picture, enabling better decision making through the cloud platform that brings it all together. And this is where the magic happens: all these connected interactions are the value cloud. The place where historical data meets todays sensor data along with data from a myriad of other sources through standard API’s.

A GPS sensor, on its own, can help Fred find the green container. But that data, interoperating with other data — like a routing schedule — can predict there is a 35% chance that container will miss the next rail departure, which will mean it sits in Bucharest until nightfall. Another sensor notes the humidity is at 70%, and the trend is rising. Then — swinging in other data points, from other parts of your process — algorithms can see that the end customer has had 9 defective deliveries this month and is red-flagged as needing close attention or even immediate intervention.

So, an alarm sounds, buzzing a supervisor to intervene. But it only happened because different data sets, with different deltas, were able to talk to each other. In other words, they were interoperable.

That is the value cloud. Far more than physical flows of goods: the value cloud amalgamates services, datasets, contracts, funds, resources, along the entire supply chain.

Interoperable data creates your value cloud

The ultimate iteration of the value cloud comes from designing your own critical paths, with breakpoints based on what matters to your business. If you ship chemicals, tank container cleaning confirmations will matter. Valuable fragiles may be affected by the age of the box, and what happened on its previous journey. Knowing crime rates at a distant yard can give insights into your insurance premiums and help resolve claims more quickly. And so on.

Data surrounds your business … and with a partner like Nexxiot, it can interoperate for added value, as reliably as a TEU twist locking onto a trailer or gantry crane spreader.

You can probably think of a dozen pieces of data you wish you had visibility on, depending on your customers and the type of cargo you carry. And that would probably take you less than five minutes.

Photo credit: Nexxiot