Data Intelligence: It's 3 a.m. ...

July 1, 2008
It's more important than ever to be sure your supply chain is secure.

Do you know where your inbound containers are? More importantly, do you know if they’ve been tampered with? Can you trace everything in them back to a specific batch/lot and manufacturer with certainty?

With more and more raw material and components coming in from offshore; the growing number of reported problems (from lead paint to tainted food ingredients to contaminated medications); and the increase in product diversions, counterfeiting and grey marketing, it’s more important than ever to be sure your supply chain is secure.

Of course, there’s no simple solution.

You have to rely on suppliers and shippers to keep accurate records. You have to ensure that containers aren’t tampered with in transit. And, you have to be able to account for everything that comes in through your dock doors.

It’s a royal pain. However, given the potential financial consequences and damage to brand reputation of a major recall, it’s a pain well worth enduring.

Controlling offshore suppliers is no easy task. There are, however, products available to make case and pallet identification relatively painless. Whether the system uses barcodes or RFID tags, it’s possible to provide good granularity of packaged goods. For batch-processed materials, it may be more difficult. Nonetheless, product traceability should be part of the contract with offshore suppliers.

Ensuring container integrity through the use of a manual seal is better than nothing. Inspecting and reading a seal with a barcode is more efficient than trying to determine the validity of a manual seal. But, that will only tell you that the container has been opened. Electronic (RFID) seals (e-seals) can be read more quickly and can provide information on when they were broken. The port of Shanghai has instituted a pilot project to tag 10,000 containers destined for Savannah, Ga., with reusable e-seals for containers that shuttle between Shanghai and Savannah. The results of this pilot project might encourage other ports to follow suit. And, that might help get the infrastructure in place to make it feasible for individual companies to implement e-seals.

New GPS tracking tags are available (with or without an RFID component to hold additional information or provide ground-based identification and tracking) to provide 24/7 traceability of any inbound container anywhere in the world. Some of these systems include broadcast capability to provide real-time notification if the container is tampered with.

The argument in the past about equipping intermodal containers with advanced identification and tracking technologies has been that container owners, ship owners and port operators would bear the financial burden, while shippers and consignees would be the actual beneficiaries.

Those waiting for government mandates may have to wait a long time. Expected “green lanes” for containers with e-seals and other security/tracking technologies have not been forthcoming. The U.S. government is relying on other reporting methods to identify suspicious containers or shippers.

Still, there is the possibility that the government may mandate that all containers have seals on them and that these seals are checked at the ports. If that happens, port operators will have an incentive to favor e-seals that can be read and verified automatically.

Absent governmental mandates, it will take pressure from shippers and consignees to get RFID or GPS tracking of containers. Once demand is loud enough, container owners, ship owners and port operators will see container tracking as a competitive advantage.

And, that should help you sleep easier.

Bert Moore is a 20-year veteran of the AIDC industry. He is director of IDAT Consulting & Education, Alpharetta, Ga.

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