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Constantly tracking anything, anywhere

By Special Guest
Dima Feldman and Aviv Castro, VP Product & Marketing, and VP Business Development, both at Altair Semiconductor, a Sony Group Company
June 03, 2020

The Internet of Things is changing the shape of many businesses. Not only does the IoT herald in greater visibility of production asset effectiveness, improve operational efficiencies, and facilitate more informed decision making, it is also opening up new ways of doing business. The reach of the IoT is far and wide. While capital-intensive industrial manufacturing organizations were quick to seize the opportunities the IoT offered at an early stage; the benefits IoT can bring to global supply chains promises to deliver equally significant value.

How global asset tracking enhances the customer experience
Traceability of a consignment within the supply chain, together with its current location, is an essential part of logistics management today. However, the IoT is enabling much more than the basics. Now, with the technology advances explained below, it is possible to know the environmental conditions any consignment be exposed to. In many industries, the packaging consists of custom-built shipping containers, rigs, and racks that represent significant value themselves, and being able to trace them and their current condition can be as critical as the goods themselves. The current condition of the packaging can be as critical as the goods themselves.

For example, consider a manufacturer of vehicle windshields shipping them in a container. If the container was dropped or received a significant side-impact from another container, there is a high probability that the windshields would be broken. If the damage were only discovered on arrival with the customer, there would be the potential to disruption to the production process, resulting in costly downtime. Another example might be shipping a heat-sensitive chemical compound used in a production process where prolonged exposure to high temperatures would render the compound unusable. Visibility of the above scenarios occurring during shipping would allow prompt action to be taken to contact the customer of the likelihood of damage and a replacement shipment to be sent immediately.

Consider also a situation where, for example, a supermarket fresh produce buyer could pay based on how carefully the fruit and vegetables have been transported, taking note of the ambient temperature, light conditions, and humidity. Other use case examples include vaccine shipments, rental cars, and crop seeds.

To make this possible across geographical boarders and be completely self-contained relies upon cellular communication and battery-powered IoT technologies.

The engineering challenges of designing a global asset tracker
To date, designing an asset tracker the device has been extremely challenging due to several technical considerations. Firstly, for it to be truly global, it needs to be able to authenticate and operate internationally no matter who the operator might be. Secondly, to accommodate as many different use cases, it needs to be completely self-contained, meaning it needs to operate from its only battery power source for months and years. Cost is another consideration. With an affordable price, asset trackers can be placed on every individual pallet, item, or product rather than the consignment as a whole. Overall cost, including that of connectivity, is crucial; the lower the price, the more use cases trackers, can serve.

For the engineering team, developing a battery-powered asset tracker with cellular connectivity has several critical constraints. Operating off a battery introduces the need for low power ICs to be used throughout. Maintaining operation for months and years without the need to change the battery, requires prudent power management whatever the use case. Likewise, incorporating cellular connectivity with a global reach, while maintaining attractive connectivity plans, hardware-based SIM solution is needed for connectivity to be able to connect to tier1 mobile networks globally. Size is also a necessary aspect of any asset tracker. Not only does it need to be extremely robust, but it also needs to be small enough to be attached to small assets, beer kegs for an example.

Design engineers faced with this development task would find the Altair’s cellular IoT chipset – ALT1250 system-on-chip, a viable contender on which to base their design. This highly integrated device, housed in an ultra-thin WLCS package, features both CAT-M and NB-IoT modems, a dedicated low power Arm Cortex-M4 microcontroller for running the application code, a GNSS receiver, and an integrated SIM (iSIM). When it comes to designing an asset tracker, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. 

A battery and an antenna are the only additional components required. All the necessary network credentials are held on the secure integrated SIM (iSIM). Such high levels of integration make it possible to keep the overall tracker footprint extremely small, and it is envisaged that a full-featured tracker module could be accomplished within a 100 mm2 footprint. Thanks to the technology advances made by Altair Semiconductor, it is now possible and commercially viable to track anything, anywhere.

Bayer partnership enables full transparency across the global supply chain
With a reputation for innovation, and the goal to further enhance their customer experience, global life science company, Bayer formed a partnership with Altair Semiconductor, Arm, Vodafone Business, and Murata, to develop a smart label similar in size to a stick-on postage label. Intended for use across Bayer’s global supply chain, encompassing pharmaceutical, consumer health, crop sciences, and animal health products, goods are monitored continuously for several vital environmental parameters throughout the whole logistics and supply chain operation. The Bayer solution provides international automated visibility of goods that hasn’t been possible before. The smart label contains sensing and connectivity technology, battery, and antenna. It automatically connects to cellular networks and is designed to operate continuously using the single battery for up to 2 years.

What do you want to track?
The potential use cases for asset tracking applications can be found everywhere. Whether you wish to track the transit cases for expensive and sensitive electronics test equipment or to provide traceability of temperature-sensitive foods from the factory to the food service provider, a fully integrated cellular IoT ultra-low power chipset that can seamlessly connect to cellular networks enable the next generation of asset tracking.

About the authors:
Dima Feldman is the Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at Altair Semiconductor, a Sony Group Company. Dima is responsible for product management, marketing, and solution architecture. He works closely with development teams, customers, and partners to build innovative IoT solutions.

Aviv Castro is the Vice President of Business Development at Altair Semiconductor, a Sony Group Company.  Aviv oversees all aspects of Altair’s business development, from strategic planning to profitability analysis. He builds partnerships with key decision-makers and develops strategic alliances to further Altair’s relationships.

To learn about all sorts of IoT innovations, join us at next year’s IoT Evolution Expo 2021: It’s Time to Grow, taking place in Miami in February. Call for papers now open.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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