When former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner was asked how technology could help improve supply chain security, he answered in two words: smart containers. Smart containers could tell Customs officials (among other things) whether a container had been opened, and, if so, when and where. Unfortunately, smart containers still have problems, including a high number of false positives on choppy oceans, high costs and security concerns. Customs says this is one reason it hasn’t rolled out the Green Lane.
In the meantime, some companies are using radio frequency identification (RFID) networks to track their shipments. General Motors parts coming from Canada to the United States are carried on tagged trucks. The tag includes the vehicle and container identification numbers (matched to the manifest submitted by the carrier and GM) and a digital photo of the driver. If the picture doesn’t match the driver, or the numbers on the RFID device don’t match the manifest, the load is inspected and the driver questioned by a Customs officer.
For intercontinental shipments, an RFID tag can trigger automated alerts when a container enters a terminal equipped with an RFID network. (Without automated alerts, importers are at the mercy of terminal operators who sometimes don’t send their manual alerts until days after a container arrives in the United States.) Stanford Professor Hau Lee found that between reductions in inventory and pilfering, as well as other savings, companies that use technologies like RFID can avoid as much as $462 in costs per container. Reusable RFID tags range between $20 and $150, and networks can cost from $30,000 for a small site to over $1 million.
In short, it will still be a while before RFID is ubiquitous.