An image of shipping containers.

Intermodal Transportation Gets an Efficiency Boost With IoT Technology

November 2, 2021 - Emily Newton

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Intermodal transportation is necessary in an increasingly complex global supply chain. However, intermodal shippers have long struggled with tracking and reporting the status of containers in transit. This has made intermodal a less appealing option than transportation methods like trucking, where visibility-boosting GPS-enabled tracking systems have become widely adopted.

The internet of things (IoT) is helping to change this. Powered by new “smart” technologies, intermodal transportation companies are adopting innovative methods of tracking containers while they are in transit. This is how the industry has applied IoT so far, and how major logistics companies are likely to innovate over the next few years. 

Growth and Challenges in Intermodal Transport

In 2021, intermodal freight transportation is booming. Total intermodal volumes for the first quarter of 2021 rose 2.6% above the previous year, despite extreme weather conditions, like historic low temperatures in much of the southern United States. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach “saw their busiest March on record,” with container volume up 97% from 2020. 

These numbers were likely inflated somewhat by the impact of COVID-19 on global shipping — but they were still 65% higher than volumes in March 2019.

Inland rail intermodal ports also saw increases in traffic. 

Both rising demand and the unique benefits of intermodal transport have shippers relying more heavily than ever on the transportation method. 

Tight truck capacity, in part a result of a shortage of qualified truck drivers, has encouraged some shippers to turn away from the trucking industry to meet shipping demand. US and global economic growth is also encouraging businesses to look outside the trucking industry for transportation methods with the capacity to handle growing shipping needs.

While intermodal transportation is increasingly important, industry challenges may limit the shipping method’s efficiency.

Visibility in intermodal transportation is sometimes limited compared to visibility in shipping by truck. This can make intermodal shipping much less efficient — with less information on where their shipments are, shipping customers can’t be as proactive and informed in their decision-making. 

Growing expectations around digitalization also mean that customers increasingly expect smart systems that can provide them with real-time information on shipments and the supply chain. The lack of digital monitoring systems in intermodal transportation may make intermodal less desirable than other shipping methods.

Sustainability in intermodal transportation is also becoming a more important consideration. The environmental impact of shipping is encouraging customers to invest in highly efficient means of transportation to reduce their carbon emissions.

How IoT May Transform Intermodal Visibility

Efficiency in logistics is closely linked to visibility. Know where a shipment is, and you can make much more informed decisions about shipping, manufacturing and distribution. 

Because intermodal transportation makes visibility more challenging — and because conventional visibility-boosting solutions don’t always work for intermodal logistics — the method’s shipping efficiency has been limited in some ways.

Location Tracking With IoT Devices

Internet of things (IoT) technology, “smart” devices that use the internet to send and receive information, is changing this. A new generation of IoT devices is providing networked tracking for intermodal containers, helping both shipping companies and their customers to keep better track of containers moved by intermodal shipping.

Increasingly, providers of trailer-tracking systems are branching out, and developing systems compatible with intermodal containers and container chassis. These systems leverage internet-connected GPS and RFID devices to track shipments while they are in transit.

Designed specifically for the challenges of intermodal transportation, these devices attach to containers and container chassis to provide information on shipment location. The trackers are precise — often measuring distances within feet — and can send updates as frequently as once every few seconds. 

Like all IoT devices, they transmit this information to the cloud, providing anyone with network access the ability to receive real-time updates on the movement and condition of a particular tracked shipment. The system can be configured to provide alerts to stakeholders, offering early notice on major transportation events that may impact the arrival time of shipped goods. 

For example, companies can use geofencing to define the boundaries of key areas — like warehouses, rail yards and container staging areas — in the container’s journey. When a container enters or exits one of these areas, the system can send a time-stamped notice to stakeholders, providing a record of the shipment’s location.

Streamlining Transportation Data Management With the Cloud

Cloud-based data management tools can help shipping companies to consolidate and analyze this data, providing them with insights into the shipping process that they can use to improve decision-making. The availability of data can also help shipping customers to make more proactive decisions. 

Importantly, the cloud-based systems provide both seamless data flow and a single source of truth for both shippers and their customers. Stakeholders can treat data in the cloud as being close to real-time knowledge of actual shipment location.

Having a single source of truth is especially important for intermodal transportation, where the inherent complexity of the method — which often involves multiple hand-off points and parties for each shipment — can create conflicting records and documentation. A GPS tracking system makes it much easier to determine where a shipment was at a given moment.

A centralized data source can also help businesses to more easily optimize shipping operations. With all information in the same place, shipping companies and their customers won’t have to spend time gathering and organizing data from multiple sources before analysis is possible.

Combined with AI, this data can help to significantly improve visibility and day-to-day operations.

Many of these systems also help to improve data accessibility. Typically, tracking systems offer dashboards and reports that ensure customers can easily visualize important information related to intermodal shipments.

In practice, these tools help to provide intermodal transportation companies with improved visibility, greater capacity and new security options. In one case, a transportation management company was able to use the IoT technology and data management platform to add more than a day of fleet use per container. 

This would allow transportation management companies to greatly expand their capacity without additional investment in containers, container chassis or fleet vehicles.

Shipping Conditions Tracking With IoT Devices

In addition to location tracking, IoT devices can also provide additional insights into shipping conditions. New IoT sensors can track variables like temperature, humidity and vibration, providing stakeholders with information on the conditions inside a container during shipping. 

For products that require specific environmental conditions while in transit — like fresh produce, frozen goods and cold chain pharmaceuticals — this information can be essential in reducing spoilage and identifying supply chain inefficiencies.

As with tracking systems, these temperature-monitoring systems can automatically send alerts to stakeholders and logistics staff. If temperatures rise beyond safe levels, a system alert can prompt immediate action to restore refrigeration or container temperatures before items spoil. 

Stored temperature data can also help a company to determine when certain items spoiled or limit recalls to only those products exposed to unsafe temperatures. In practice, this could customers to improve food safety and reduce the cost of recalls.

Like location tracking systems, these temperature tracking systems can report data often — as frequently as once every few seconds, if necessary.

For high-value shipments, shippers may use different strategies. Pharmaceuticals, rare raw materials and microprocessors, for example, can be monitored by IP video cameras that can stream a continuous video feed to the cloud or only when triggered by a motion sensor or similar device.

How IoT Technology Innovations May Transform Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is in demand, but the limited efficiency of the transportation method may be reducing shipping companies’ total possible shipping capacity.

New IoT solutions leverage devices like GPS, RFID and temperature sensors to provide customers with better information on shipments — like close-to-real time data on shipment location. Cloud-based data management platforms extend the value of data collected by these solutions.

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Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She enjoys reading and writing about how technology is changing the world around us.

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