Returnable shipping equipment has been gaining traction in the automotive industry since the early 90’s with the implementation of standard hand-held and bulk containers. When I worked at an OEM in 1994, we had a team of 7 people that determined the fleet sizes and implemented 21 million dollars of returnable shipping assets in that year. Seeing an industry pull together for a sustainable goal that also saved money in most cases was a rewarding endeavor. Our plan was to have the part suppliers put the cost of the returnables into their reimbursable packaging piece price and include an additional 4% for maintenance and repair of the fleet including lost containers. It wasn’t long after the launch of the program that we realized controlling the container movement of packaging that all looks the same was not an easy task and 4% wasn’t going to cover the loss. Since then I have been trying different ways to track the containers that sometimes cost as little as $5.Using sensor technology in the ‘90s wasn’t financially feasible but now I see it as a first line of defense for keeping a container fleet intact.

Using sensor technology in the ‘90s wasn’t financially feasible but now I see it as a first line of defense for keeping a container fleet intact

The cost of the tags and the infrastructure has come down substantially and there are numerous service providers emerging with valid middleware that sorts and identifies the containers that are out of cadence. I anticipate a combination of technologies would be most cost effective and this is how I would structure the system. During the launch of a new container program, have the container manufacturer tag all the containers with passive RFID or BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) tags. Passive RFID tags are the least costly, but the infrastructure can be very expensive.BLE can use existing infrastructure but the tags cost more. Both technologies count the containers without line of sight when they are in the vicinity of the reader. If I anticipate the loop to be tight, only through a few dock doors, I will choose a passive RFID program. If I have many dock doors available for the containers to flow through, I would choose BLE tags and use the existing phones, tablets, or computers near the dock area to collect the data. It would require readers all the way down I-75 to dynamically track the container movement from our supplier to our plant so I would add another layer of technology, GPS tags on the trailer, LPWA. If you associate the LPWA tag (GPS) to the RFID or BLE tags on the trailer, you can track the movement of the containers wherever they are outside a building. If the truck driver deviates from the planned route, you can identify the error in the loop and communicate to the driver before the containers get unloaded at the wrong destination. You are also able to see the quantity of containers that are unloaded at each stop along a milk run. If one supplier takes too many or too few containers off the truck, you will know almost immediately. Recently, I lead a team of OEM’s to create guidelines for returnable transport item sensor technology for the Automotive Industry that will be published by AIAG in 2021.The guidelines are necessary so we can reduce the amount of hardware and software needed to manage the fleet of returnables across North America. Using industry standards will ensure good communication between companies without releasing confidential information. I look forward to the day when I can be confident that my containers are where they are supposed to be at the right time and with the right quantity.