Leveraging Technology to Track Returnable Shipping Containers

Leveraging Technology to Track Returnable Shipping Containers

The ability to track shipping containers filled with automotive components is quite valuable in today’s just-in-time production world. Identifying when shipments will be delayed, or correcting the path of shipments off course, helps us ensure our manufacturing facilities can plan accordingly and meet the production needs of our customers. 

 Until recently, leveraging technology to track returnable containers, those that are specially fabricated and hold significant value as a company asset, has been too expense. However, as is common with tech, the cost for implementing and using RFID, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and low power, wide area (LBWA) solutions has come down, making the use of them now cost effective.

Before we look ahead at how these technologies can greatly improve tracking for container fleets, let’s review some history around this kind of effort. When I worked for a large automaker in the 1990s, tracking returnable shipping equipment started to gain traction as the industry adopted the use of standard hand-held and bulk containers. These kinds of fabricated containers held value, could be reused and replaced expendable cardboard shipping boxes. In 1994, our team of seven people launched returnable shipping assets valued at $21 million that year. The idea that we could dramatically lower the use of cardboard for shipping was a nod toward creating a more sustainable approach to moving parts from our suppliers to our assembly plants in North America.


We built the cost of the returnable containers into the reimbursable packaging piece price, including an additional 4% to cover maintenance and repair of the fleet and lost containers.

However, we quickly learned that controlling the movement of containers with packaging that all looks the same was very difficult and that 4% wasn’t going to cover the loss we experienced. Shipments didn’t always move directly from point A to point B. Sometimes, they sat in truck driver’s driveway overnight, thereby delaying their expected delivery. I’ve since tried many ways to track containers ranging in value from as little as $5 to more than $1,500 in a cost-effective way. In the 1990s, using sensor technology wasn’t financially feasible, but today, I see it as a much-needed tool to keep container fleets intact.

"In The 1990s, Using Sensor Technology Wasn’t Financially Feasible, But Today, I See It As A Much-Needed Tool To Keep Container Fleets Intact"

The cost of tags and the infrastructure to scan and track them has come down substantially, and there are numerous service providers emerging with software to quickly identify containers that are out of cadence or off track. 

During the launch of a new container program, we can have manufacturers tag all the units with passive RFID or BLE tags. The RFID tags are the least costly, but the infrastructure to scan them can still be very expensive. BLE tags can use existing infrastructure for scanning and tracking, but the tags cost more.Both technologies count containers when they are in the vicinity of readers. 

The use of RFID tags makes sense when containers are certain to go through dedicated dock doors. When the dock doors are not dedicated, you can use BLE tags that can be read by existing phones, tablets or computers near the dock area to collect the needed data.

However, to track those assets after they leave the dock, you’d need scanners all along the routes. Instead, we can add another layer of technology by attaching LPWA tags to the trailers. Then we can associate the containers inside those trailers with an LPWA tag and be able to track their movement in real time. If a truck driver deviates from an expected route, we can quickly identify and correct the error. We can also see how many containers are offloaded at any particular stop along the driver’s route and know right away if the wrong number are dropped off and quickly adjust.

These strategies can go a long way toward helping our industry protect its valuable container fleets and track the flow of parts shipments to ensure manufacturing efficiency. In North America, I lead a team with several automakers that has created guidelines for returnable transport technology. Those guidelines will be published by AIAG (the Automotive Industry Action Group) in 2021. Adopting these industry standards will enable good communication between companies within the automotive supply chain without the need to release confidential information. I look forward to the day when we can all be confident that our containers are exactly where they’re supposed to be, at the right time and in the right quantity

Weekly Brief

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