Global logistics companies play an outsize role in ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines get to healthcare systems worldwide. For one of those shipping companies a decade-long effort to perfect package tracking is paying off, enabling stakeholders to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of coronavirus medications.
FedEx is using a sophisticated technology network to keep tabs on the millions of vaccine vials en route through a sprawling logistics pipeline that includes pharmaceutical companies, ground and air transportation giants, and healthcare systems responsible for administering the medications.
The network includes sensors and a cloud analytics platform that helps stakeholders monitor the progress of shipments in near real-time, according to FedEx CIO Rob Carter. “The proliferation of the internet of things has created a whole new ecosystem” for logistics, Carter tells CIO.com, adding that FedEx has been awarded more than 50 patents for sensor-based logistics.
To help, FedEx affixes a SenseAware ID to each vaccine shipment. These small, bar-coded sensors transmits location data every two seconds via Bluetooth to WiFi access points or gateway devices throughout the FedEx Express network, Carter says.
When a driver scans the bar code with his or her handheld scanner it generates a “license plate,” or shipping code, to help FedEx track the package and predict its ability to meet service requirements, Carter says. Packages equipped with SenseAware ID sensors are tracked hundreds of times throughout their route, versus dozens of times with traditional package scanning protocols.
The copious amounts of data generated by SenseAware ID funnels into FedEx Surround, an analytics platform co-created with Microsoft and hosted on Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Surround harnesses historical data about FedEx routes and Zip codes, as well as external data sources such as weather, mapping, and other factors and runs it through Azure machine learning (ML) software.
This algorithmic approach helps FedEx to interpret conditions surrounding each package and to reroute a shipment before it can be delayed by storms, natural disasters, mechanical failures or incorrect addresses, among other hiccups.
In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, which are sensitive to higher temperatures, on-time deliveries are key to avoiding spoilage.
“The vaccines are among the most important shipments made in our history,” Carter says. “The main way to ensure temperature integrity is to get them where they’re intended to go in the timeframes they need to be delivered.”
ML fuels shipment predictions
Judson Althoff, executive vice president of Microsoft’s worldwide commercial business, offered the following Surround use case in a post on LinkedIn:
“Imagine if a pallet of vaccines were destined for transport from Michigan to California and the external data showed a high likelihood of delay because of weather,” Althoff wrote. “In that scenario, an alert would be triggered to customer service agents and operations planners, who could then put the shipment on another flight. It’s the difference between the vaccine getting to California on time and ready to go or not.”
Moreover, the ML capabilities mean that for every package shipped Surround will analyze past trends to identify ways to optimize shipping in the future.
FedEx product and leadership teams came to Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters in early 2020 to plan how Surround would work. Recognizing the “huge logistical challenge” and importance of tracking COVID-19 vaccines and other critical shipments, the companies convened several remote meetings comprising hundreds of people to develop Surround, Althoff says.
Algorithmic foresight is a growing trend in logistics, according to Gartner. The researcher says the availability of supply chain data, including IoT data and weather patterns, enables enterprises to extrapolate the current environment to better understand future scenarios and make proﬁtable recommendations.
“With more available and reliable data, organizations are leveraging analytics to sense the disruption, comprehend its magnitude and impact on the supply chain, and formulate a response,” Gartner analysts Bart De Muynck and Carly West wrote in an August 2020 report.