The Solar-Powered Supply Chain 4.0

By Andrea Thompson / March 13, 2019

As companies adapt to Industry 4.0, the ability to gather, process, and analyze data has emerged as the essential element of this transformation. The tools to become faster, more flexible, and efficient grow ever sharper — and need to be longer-lasting and more reliable than before. Nowhere is this more apparent than in supply chain management.

Similar to the first industrial boom (the steam engine), the second (mass production), and the third (semiconductors, computers, the internet), the fourth revolution is changing the way value is created and distributed, this time through rapidly evolving frontier technologies, such as AI, blockchain, robotics, 3-D printing, and IoT.

The fuel powering this revolution? Data; the new oil, in more ways than one.

No Data Without Power

Marked by transparency, speed, and granularity, Supply Chain 4.0 is bringing together not only a radical ability to gather data, but applications that can quickly sort, evaluate, and distribute knowledge based on that data.

Rather than depending on manual inputs, which can be slow and prone to error, Supply Chain 4.0 relies on streams of raw data, autonomously and continuously gathered by IoT sensors, which can report on location, weather conditions, humidity or temperature within storage containers. Increasingly, sensors will have the ability to “look inside” containers for security information or to understand what it contains and in what quantity.

Of course, all these data-gathering devices need power. And that’s where a relatively unassuming technology—one that has remained largely the same since it was first developed, even while improving in efficiency— comes into play. Solar panels, attached to IoT sensors, allow for greater redundancy, reliability, and richer data sets, which require higher levels of power to gather and transmit.

Solar Track & Trace

Voltaic Systems, a New Lab member company who has showcased how enterprises can apply solar energy to address intricate business challenges within their supply chain, found its way into the business of powering IoT sensors after starting out with high-quality solar backpacks. “We over-engineered those panels to last ten years or longer outside,” Jeff Crystal, Voltaic’s COO, explains. “Then we started to get people coming to us with requests to use our panels for prototyping IoT applications.” One of their first clients in this space was fellow New Lab member company JUMP (now owned by Uber), which required solar panels to power their dockless bicycles and tracking system.

JUMP ebikes — once Social Bicycles — equipped with Voltaic solar panels.

“Everyone wants to know where their assets are with accuracy and precision,” says Crystal. As experienced with New Lab’s corporate partners, there is a growing need to test and evaluate Voltaic’s rugged panels against industrial applications, a realm in which, as Crystal notes, the concern switches from lowest price to highest quality. “Enterprises need access to a platform to test emerging technologies against real supply chain problem sets,” notes New Lab CEO Shaun Stewart. “The opportunity to accelerate product development and pilot in business environments is the best way to move innovation forward and make incremental progress.”

For enterprise companies shipping a container of essential components for their manufacturing process across the United States, the best information available might be the last checkpoint and expected date of arrival. But with a solar-powered IoT sensor, companies now know exactly where the container is, the rate of travel and whether there is an exception that needs to be managed. The sensor, no longer dependent on power from the vehicle, removes human error in providing tracking information and reduces the need to devote resources to track down assets. The path from beginning to end becomes transparent.

Increased automation and reduced friction throughout the logistical chain are hallmarks of Supply Chain 4.0—both of which can be provided by high-quality solar panels. “In many cases, without a solar panel, an IoT tracking system will run out of power in one or two months,” Crystal offers as one example. “You’ll have to have a technician go out to the truck and manually swap out the system or recharge the battery.” Solar panels provide not only longer life and redundancy, but the possibility for higher data quality and volume.

Voltaic Systems 9 WATT Kit that can outfit trucks to support track & trace.

“Once people start to get information, they want more, not less. In the future, we think you will know what’s actually happening with the asset, not just the location,“ states Crystal. “Sensors on a product or camera with computer vision could understand the quantities and status of goods, security of the container, and a wealth of environmental data, including vibration. That starts to become richer information and the sensors and transmission will require more power.”

The New Normal

Transparency in the supply chain isn’t just about moving an asset from one place to another; it might also be the quality of an asset in place. Crystal points to an AgTech application in which a farmer needs to insure a crop, which requires monitoring. “Grain and monitoring businesses will look for temperature, humidity,  and other variables to see if grain or other commodities are rotting,” Crystal explains. “If you can monitor it, you can insure it and then all parties can manage their risk.”

Voltaic does extensive field testing — leveraging The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s unique 300-acre campus and surrounding water as a testbed — to ensure the solar panels survive in the field, while also optimizing for the fluctuations, such as cloudy days, endemic to solar power. While Voltaic’s panels provided entree to the field, the team also builds the mounting, enclosures, and increasingly,  the battery component.

As telematics systems grow more sophisticated, robust, and widespread—as Crystal notes, the deployment of IoT sensors to containers and large assets has already begun, and will likely be commonplace in the next 2 – 3 years—powering information-gathering devices in an efficient, sustainable way is crucial. It’s a significant example of how making Supply Chain 4.0 transparent and nimble demands innovation from the bottom up.

Are you an executive interested in understanding how solar energy and frontier technologies are impacting the supply chain? Contact New Lab’s Immersive team to learn more.

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