Netfeasa CEO Mike Fitzgerald reveals how new tech will bring visibility to the world’s shipping containers

Netfeasa CEO Mike Fitzgerald reveals how new tech will bring visibility to the world’s shipping containers

It’s no secret to anyone involved in the logistics industry that supply chain visibility is big business nowadays. Major visibility platforms are attracting significant investment and ramping up their services to offer more to clients. However, such platforms simply wouldn’t function without the tech that provides visibility in the first place.

As supply chains become more complex and intermodal transports increase, the need for container visibility is understandably growing. Despite this, a very small proportion of the world’s active shipping containers are currently connected.

There are nonetheless companies whose solutions seek to remedy this problem, including Ireland-based Net Feasa, who provide an ultra-low-cost connectivity and power efficient network edge solution for the world’s dry container market. 

Over the last 5 years, Net Feasa has trialled, tested and commercially deployed new advances in technology relating to Industry 4.0 in ports and on-board ships in both the USA and the EU. 

The company believes that the shift from the legacy era of M2M (Machine 2 Machine) to 5G’s Massive Machine Type & LPWAN (IoT) technologies presents a new challenge: how can all these new things be connected at the lowest possible cost? 

Net Feasa’s answer to this is IoTPASS, a global Connectivity as a Service (CaaS) solution initially targeting the intermodal market segment.

Earlier this month, Net Feasa announced a partnership with Vodafone that will utilise global IoT networks to track individual containers rather than a specific truck, ship or train. This, it is said, provides a single unified data set that is consistent wherever the container is on its journey across the supply chain.

Naturally, this extra visibility will facilitate yet more optimisation of supply chains, providing the means by which efficiency gains, as well as reductions to costs and emissions, can be made by operators large and small. 

The challenges when creating solutions such as Net Feasa’s are nonetheless daunting. For starters, its container tracking devices need to be easy to connect to, highly capable, durable, extremely low cost and incredibly energy efficient.

Therefore, to learn how Net Feasa is meeting these challenges with its container 4.0 solution, we spoke to chairman Mike Fitzgerald about container tracking technology, the importance of total-cost-of-ownership, the recent Vodafone partnership and the role Net Feasa sees itself playing in today’s supply chain visibility market.

Hi Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk to us at Trans.INFO. 

Since the company was founded back in 2015, there have been a number of technological advancements, not to mention a rapid drive towards digitalisation in the logistics industry sparked by the pandemic. Which developments during this time have been most important for you as a company?

Well, Interestingly, it wasn’t any of those. What triggered our attention was a United Nations report on smart containers. The report said that a trusted service provider was really needed to connect with those containers.

Then we started thinking about it, because we’ve grown up in this world. This is our 4th company in 20 years specializing predominantly in maritime communications. So we were the guys that put mobile phones on planes, on cruise ships and on super yachts. 

In the last few years, looking at IoT, and looking at that UN report, we said: “Okay, so a trusted service provider – so in other words, a service provider where we don’t have people as subscribers, we only have the containers of the world.”

It was a very interesting concept, and we were asking ourselves, could we build an operator that only connected containers, and the money that came back from those containers per month would be our ARPU. So instead of something like $50 ARPU, we’d be looking at single digit ARPU. 

A few years ago, we started to look at that, and we were very lucky because in Ireland, not far from our HQ, there’s a container terminal in the port of Cork. The people there are very open minded and progressive on technology, so we were able to go in and test and trial a lot of sensors and a lot of wireless networks. 

To be honest with you, most of them failed. In the early days, the sensors were really university lab type sensors for testing and training. We didn’t have industrial grade sensor technology that would stand up to the harsh terrain of a port, or a ship in the ocean. 

So that’s when we started to say to Ireland’s leading research institute, Tyndall, our partner today, “Why don’t we look at this? Why not build the device that they’re looking for?” So that’s what we did.

Why are the vast majority of the world’s shipping containers still not connected?

We talk about billions and billions of things being connected, and yet the fundamental mover of 90% of our goods is not connected. So it’s illogical to have dry containers turned off. That’s how we look at it.

The only thing that’s prohibited containers from being turned on and being live on a secure network with access to the world wide web is that the devices are too expensive. 

So what people are doing is they’re taking the device they used for monitoring the reefer, which was a really good modem, one that was robust and designed very well for the marine industry, and they’re trying to repurpose it for tracking the dry container. We’re saying that’s a very flawed approach, because you can’t get a $250-$300 device down to a price point that will actually be feasible within container tracking in general.

The price for connecting the devices, per month, is also a little high; you have the support cost, the fees, everything associated with it. There’s a lot of data, these devices are very chatty. 

We’re saying that’s not going to work because if we’re going to actually put out a device on a container and bring all the benefits connectivity brings including helping you find it, but the only purpose in finding it is to change the battery. This is all wrong. 

So we looked at it and decided how we can optimise energy use, for example; we can’t use GPS unless we absolutely need to. We can’t use the battery unless we absolutely need to. They can only be used in an emergency situation. Other than that, we have to find the container. And we have to make sure that we’re staying away from the battery by using, for example, energy harvesting. 

By doing that, the whole business case changes. So when we look at how long this device will last on a container, the smarter we communicate with that container, for example enabling the edge device to communicate and understand its terrain, the longer it’s going to last.

The difficulty is that people talk about IoT devices lasting 10 years; they really don’t. That’s in a lab environment, you’ve got to be very smart at energy harvesting. 

Then the other side of energy harvesting is power management. We, as a service provider, really understand messaging. You can’t power up these units and start sending messages and communicating with the network in the normal way.

Now, we’re very open in our thinking around architecture. We also made a decision very early that the Container Owners Association,a very important body doing fantastic work right now, as well as the Digital Container Shipping Association are all working together with the big guns in shipping, they are all in there making really important decisions around standardization.

So we’ve said that we can’t go against their recommendations. We can’t be a proprietary technology where only our device will work on our network. We’ve opened up and stayed completely aligned to their thinking, their specifications and their publications. We have to make sure that we’re trusted and completely secure, but that we are also open and able to accommodate our own devices and anyone else’s.

It appears that battery issues are contributing to some visibility gaps then. How can container tracking devices be made to work in an ultra-efficient manner that drastically reduces the need for a battery swap? 

First of all, we must be intelligent. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve been involved in putting IoT wireless networks on shipping vessels. That’s what we’ve always done. We’ve had 20 years in this market, but we’ve moved on from old cellular to new cellular, and now that new cellular has launched narrowband, which is 4G and 5G compatible – it’s going to be around for a long time. 

LoRaWAN is another great technology too, so those two particular technologies we felt were the most suited for the intermodal transportation world. Both are important and we feel they need to be used together. The port and ship could have a LoRa network, and then the cellular network can provide us with global connectivity. 

So what we do is we just try to be as intelligent as we can be along the global supply chain. If we know we’re in a port, and we’re continuing to be in a port, well, we know how frequent our messages need to be.

So therefore, if we’re moving, we know we’re moving and therefore we have a different messaging frequency. We have the ability to understand that we’ve been put away in a port and we’re going to be there for a while. Therefore, again, we adapt our messaging frequency.  

During our first pass at machine learning, we were kind of skeptical because we said, “look, we don’t know how powerful machine learning is going to be in this environment.” 

The first thing we noticed was that there’s so much information coming back just in relation to the messages themselves. There’s also a lot of peripheral data value. For example, we know the power levels and we know how efficient we’re being on our power utilization. 

We know the signal strength and the cell we are in too. So we can look indirectly at this and figure out where we are. So then we can say, “Why do we need to turn on GPS?”

This really takes the pressure off our energy source. If we bring up GPS to take a reading on position, that’s killing the battery. If we’re doing hourly messaging and we’re having to lean on our customers and our clients to determine how to change the messaging patterns, that’s too much pressure on them. We need to think about how massive numbers of devices can be provisioned and managed easily. Automatically even. 

The network needs to do this by itself. It needs to be intelligent enough. Between the core network that runs the network, and the edge device, we need to understand and predict the whole intermodal process.

And what about total-cost-of-ownership, that must be a key factor you are working on?

Absolutely right. The rule of thumb in the industry is that a container will last around 14 years. That means the smart connectivity device on it must last around 14 years too. If the battery has to be changed just once in that 14 years, your total cost of ownership has gone through the roof. 

You would have to put a global support network in place in that situation? We can’t have that. So from the beginning, it’s a low cost device, low operational overheads and it’s a low connectivity cost per month. 

It doesn’t stop there either; we’re actually saying that, from a pricing perspective, we also have to be willing to put our money where our mouth is. We have to price this accordingly. If it doesn’t last – if it only lasts 13 years or 12 years, we have to be penalized from a service perspective. So we’re building that into the model as a kind of joint risk. 

Another one, for example, is if we have a pandemic and we have to stop moving containers, or if there’s some kind of a recession that hugely impacts our clients day to day business we too need to price this accordingly. If they’re sitting there with unused containers or they’re equipment is heavily utilised the costs should adapt to help them. So yes, we’re doing a lot of work on the business model and the total cost of ownership.

The company also announced last month that its researchers are developing a PMIC (Power Management Integrated Circuit) that will dramatically extend the battery life of retrofitted wireless sensors. How much a game-changer would this be, and when do you hope to have a final product available on the market? 

It’s fundamental. Energy harvesting and managing power exists today and while PMIC chips are not brand new, how we interface from our core network and the edge device is new. This is where our IP lies and this is where our leading Irish research institute, Tyndall, is working closely with us. They have their own IP they are bringing to the relationship. 

There’s a tendency for a PMIC to try to make decisions at the edge of the network. We’re saying, we’re a communication device, you are going to get a lot more value making decisions at the core.

If you have 20 million containers live, and they’re feeding back with really important information, then our decision making at the core network side becomes important and can instruct the edge device to make the best decisions. 

However, the relationship between the two is the key to getting really smart. We have all these smart messages going back and forth. The core objective of this PMIC is to harness energy into the super capacitor. We scavenge it from whatever we can get it, whether it’s thermal, or solar or vibration. When that important piece of energy is coming in, we know what we have to play with at the edge. 

We really only want to do things we need to do, because we desperately don’t want to go to the battery. So the point would be, would you be able to use a three year battery and last 14 years? Of course we could, because we’re not using the battery. The battery is only there for emergencies. 

If we just work with PMIC so that we’re just very mean and lean and need not turn to that important emergency backup, it changes the whole business case.

How key is the partnership with Vodafone? To what extent do you believe the deal will provide the connectivity that logistics operators need? 

Well, the container must communicate no matter where it is on earth. Vodafone gives us that opportunity from day one. So all of a sudden, this container will be able to message back from wherever it is. 

They’re a great team too, they pride themselves on security and on reliability. It was important for us that we enter into a partnership that ticks all those boxes and to make sure from a shipping company’s perspective or from a container leasing or owners perspective, that that whole bundle they get from us is reliable. Vodafone in general, also likes to take a company like ours and help us to grow globally.

We’re based in Dingle in Ireland with an office in Silicon Valley, we’ve lived and worked all the way to other parts of the world. So as a management team, we’ve been around and it’s great to be able to live and work from the Dingle peninsula in Kerry. Most of us are from here. 

I set up a joint venture in the back streets of Beijing in the 90s. It’s very easy now to go global from anywhere, and the pandemic has reinforced this. Vodafone is very focused on this globalisation, they are very professional. So that was a kind of nice win-win for us.

Around about this time last year, ARM released a white paper that was talking up the ability of eSIMs to simplify and streamline complex logistics processes. eSIMS are of course utilised in your solutions, so how big an improvement have they offered compared to nanoSims for example? 

Well, for us, the great breakthrough there is that we’ve arrived at a point in time where, from a first generation device, we see the eSIM and physical SIM as both working in harmony, because there could be a least cost routing requirement for the application.

Then, as things change, and as roaming agreements change, like the way Europe has just changed from a roaming tariff perspective over the last few years, we see having both as important. Over time, we think by generation two it will just be eSIM only.

The great value behind eSIM is that it can change over the air. And when we go back to the discussion around massive provisioning, this would be critical. We must be able to provision the actual SIM ownership and which network you’re on, and we need to do that over the air. Again, it’s the same principle, you never go out to the device, you never change a SIM card and you never change the battery. 

Our clients may turn around and say, “You know what, you’re not the best service provider in the game, we’ve had a contract with you for so many years, we need to move on to somewhere else.”  If we don’t give that capability to our customers, they’re not going to sign up with us for the long term. 

That means it’s up to us to prove ourselves on an ongoing basis, to offer more, to get leaner, to get more efficient on battery usage and to get more efficient on what we’re charging them per month. So we need to have that technology.

Supply chain visibility is becoming huge in the logistics industry at this moment in time, and the visibility platform providers are growing fast following significant investments and acquisitions. What kind of a role do you envision NetFeasa having in this space as the market develops? 

It’s to enable those guys, all of them, to be better, to be more proficient in delivering a better service to the shipping companies. Because as you say, we’re the conduit for that really important data. When we present that data to our client, we want them to give that data to the partners they have today. So we’re not blocking everybody out. We’re not trying to say that just because we are now connecting 25 million containers, we’re going to hold the data and block others. No, we’re going to pass the data to our customer, after all it’s their data. We are their trusted service partner. 

They may turn to us and say, actually, because you guys have got so much experience, and you’ve got so many machine learning algorithms delivering so much added value we would like you to work on our data. But we don’t block. We don’t do anything to the data, only deliver it to them on a plate. If they want to hand it back to us, that’s good too. 

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