Smart sensors in modern logistics: Overcoming supply chain disruptions


The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on supply chain operations worldwide, creating massive disruptions and new challenges in four critical points in the logistics process – point of origin, warehousing, transit, and destination.

Due to the increased restrictions on goods’ movement, overnight shifts in demand patterns, and improper storage conditions, things took an unexpected turn in the logistics process, including pilfering, asset misplacement, and physical damage.

It is now more important than ever before to ensure that the right goods are transported in the right quantities, under the right conditions, and delivered to the right place at the right time to the right customer, at the right price.

Fortunately, sensors can improve and modernize logistics across various industries to shore up global supply chain infrastructures. As integral parts of IoT infrastructure capable of enhancing data visibility and transparency across the entire process, they play a critical role in facilitating planning, optimization, and risk management in the supply chain.

Starting from simple RFID based tagging for identification of goods, sensor-based technologies and communicating devices can alert companies to problems and help them address issues, sometimes even before they happen.

They can also be used to monitor environmental conditions, prevent misplacement, identify damages, track location, reveal real-time conditions, ensure compliance, and more. Notably, sensors can still reveal the logistical history of the process, even without network connections, helping to identify events that might have compromised goods.

Types of smart sensors

Let’s now look at the different types of smart sensors used in the supply chain.

  • Acoustic sensors (Piezo microphones, electret microphones, condenser microphones): Recognize audio vibration or frequency to determine activity, location, intensity
  • Chemical sensors (MEMS technology, fuel cell) – Measure fluid composition and concentration of biological/chemical compounds.
  • Motion and force sensors (Proximity (ultrasonic/acoustic, infrared), strain/weight, vibration, accelerometers, shock accelerometers, gyroscopic, position, motion, magnetic field, rotational) – Measure static and dynamic objects to determine the amount, type, and rate of change to physical properties.
  • Image sensors (Infrared, ultraviolet (UV), visible spectrum camera) – Convert light waves into electrical signals to constitute a digital, optical form for visible condition monitoring.
  • Environmental (Temperature, humidity, color, moisture, light, pressure, liquid flow, airflow, heat, surface temperature) – Monitor and assess deviations in physical state, conditions, or surroundings.
  • Electrical (Voltage, current, power) – Identify and examine changes or disruptions in electrical or magnetic signals based upon environmental inputs or conditions.
  • Touch (capacitive touch, resistive touch) – Detect body capacitance during physical contact between objects.

Benefits of smart sensors in the supply chain

1. Operational efficiency

Smart sensors improve the level of automation across the entire supply chain to help organizations improve asset efficiency, reduce operating costs, and generate incremental revenue. Processes like inventory counting and materials sorting can be automated with the assistance of smart sensors, thus improving the productivity of human labor. Sensor-enabled labor monitoring helps reduce idle workforce by optimizing assignments.

2. Real-time inventory tracking

Smart sensors allow for touch-free identification and tracking of items that can offer real-time inventory tracking and increased accuracy at a very low cost. These improvements improve the traceability of inventory, potentially reducing the risk of inventory shrinkage or loss. More reliable and current information strengthens demand-planning capabilities, potentially reducing out of stock and overstock situations.

Smart sensor ecosystem

3. Monitoring environmental conditions

Sensors can monitor a wide variety of ambient conditions, environmental conditions, and influences like temperature (heat/cold), air humidity, air pressure, mechanical stress levels, vibration, and current characteristics of an object, such as location, speed, or direction, product quality and expiration dates of perishable products. When combined with sensor networks, they can be used for continuous parameter sensing, event detection, and identification.

4. Analytical insights

Smart sensors create much better visibility across the supply chain. They fuel better analytics that can be used to understand and anticipate demand, optimize sourcing, and drive high-value manufacturing decisions. They equip managers with real-time information about their inventory, machinery, and purchased materials. This data can improve quality monitoring in transport processes within automotive supply chains.