In the news
Jun 09, 2021

Agricultural Tracking Solution Leads to Disposable Real-Time Locating Label

By Claire Swedberg, RFID Journal.

AT&T and Sony have teamed up to provide a solution to Bayer’s Crops Science Division consisting of an adhesive, disposable IoT label that transmits its identity and sensor data via a cellular network for a view into seeds and other goods moving through an international supply chain.

Sony Semiconductor Israel and  AT&T are commercially releasing a new Internet of things (IoT)-based label intended to bring affordable, near-real-time location functionality to parcels or products throughout the supply chain. The product, known as the Smart Label, is disposable for single-use near-real-time location, leveraging a printed battery and providing cellular-based tracking of both the locations and conditions of goods. The companies developed the technology for  Bayer’s Crop Science Division, to help the life sciences firm monitor the movements and conditions of its seeds and other products as they travel worldwide.

The technology companies are also offering a full solution that includes AT&T’s LTE-M and NB-IoT cellular networks and Sony’s cloud gateway, which feeds data to the Smart Label cloud-based software. The collected data can be integrated with a user’s existing enterprise system, or the Smart Label cloud can provide data and analytics using its own artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools.

The entire process is served by the design and integration expertise of AT&T’s IoT Professions Services, the companies explain, from installation to deployment and project management. Bayer is currently undertaking multi-year global tests and proofs-of-concept of the Smart Label system, by which the company is monitoring tagged agriculture products in many different regions and countries throughout the world. Based on the results, Bayer hopes to begin using the labels in the quantity of millions per year.

Traditionally, a variety of smart label-based solutions have provided some level of connectivity via Wi-Fi, RFID or other services, for the purpose of viewing the movements of goods in supply chains. But connectivity has been limited for global shipments, as well as relatively costly, and it requires a large amount of power. The Smart Label, on the other hand, is designed to forward data wherever AT&T’s global cellular network reaches, while being affordable and lightweight. It comes with a printed battery and can be applied to lower-value parcels

The technology was first conceived by Bayer. The company sought a solution for monitoring its agricultural seed products once they entered the distribution channel, recalls Christian Geerkens, Bayer’s global sourcing manager for herbicides. The Crop Science Division is one of three sectors within Bayer which provides pharmaceuticals and consumer healthcare products. Its crop science business supplies herbicides, as well as seeds for crops, such as corn, soybeans, tomatoes and other horticulture products.

As the company sells its products, they pass through a complex supply chain, first to a distributor and then to smaller distributors or customers. In some cases, products are sold on commission, meaning if a retailer fails to sell them, they can then be returned to Bayer for a refund. Bayer also provides reusable containers that transport goods, but these are not serialized and thus are difficult to track. What’s more, the containers may end up lost and need to be replaced, resulting in additional costs.

Due to the limited visibility, the company was challenged when it came to planning product sales in the future, since it couldn’t see what was selling. “If you have incorrect planning, that leads to underproduction,” Geerkens explains. Alternatively, it could mean over-production if products are still on a store’s shelves without a retailer being aware of it due to missing data. The firm needed a technology-based solution, he says, one that would include cost-effective labels that used little power and, therefore, could reliably transmit data throughout the supply chain.

However, Geerkens says, “There was nothing in the market to help us fulfill our demand.” With millions of dollars in revenue at stake, he adds, Bayer envisioned a real-time location system that would provide insights regarding the locations and conditions of goods in the supply chain. It turned to Sony Semiconductor IL to develop and commercialize the Smart Label, which was activated on AT&T’s global cellular network.

Following collaborative development (which began in December 2017), the first feasibility studies took place in 2018, then field testing followed in 2019 with 500 to 1,000 labels. “We made the decision to then give this product to Sony,” Geerkens states, “since they are the technology company and could further develop the product.”

The >Smart Label includes Sony’s Altair ALT1250 low-power cellular IoT chip and integrated >subscriber identity module, along with various sensors, including an >accelerometer for movement and shock detection, as well as temperature and moisture sensors to monitor the conditions to which parcels are exposed. It also features anti-tampering functionality. In the next version, Sony plans to add more sensors to monitor humidity and light, according to Aviv Castro, Sony Semiconductor IL’s VP of business development, who heads the company’s Smart Label business

To reduce cost and size, the label leverages a printed battery. To apply the labels for tests and proofs-of-concept, users can peel away the backing, which triggers each label to transmit its unique ID number and sensor readings via a cellular signal. In the future, the company plans to enable the label to be applied automatically apply via a >label applicator.

Data from the label is received by the Sony gateway, then is forwarded to AT&T’s server, where professional services software can either manage the data and drive alerts in real time, or else let customers manage that information themselves. “Some customers may be totally comfortable taking the data for their own AI and machine learning,” explains Lilac Ilan, AT&T’s assistant VP of product marketing for the Internet of Things, “or they can use an end-to-end solution managed by AT&T.”

The label is designed to go dormant during flights, when it is not motion or while it is at sea, where there is no connectivity. The life of the battery, on average, is approximately six months. Since it is disposable, Castro says, the system eliminates the need to ship the device to a point of origin for reuse. The label price varies based on volume, Ilan notes, but it will be significantly less expensive than traditional asset trackers. “The goal is to ensure an ROI at the parcel level,” she states.

According to Ilan, the solution will help introduce the market to much lower-cost asset-tracking devices. “Until now,” she explains, “the price point was high and the ROI wasn’t there for a single parcel.” Beyond affordability, Ilan adds, a key point is the label’s ease of use. Once the label is attached, she says, “You just put it on a package and there you go, it’s live.”

Bayer expects the Smart Label to provide it with multiple benefits. First, the system captures data about how products move through the supply chain, as well as when and where the goods are sold. This enables the firm to accomplish better future planning. Additionally, the solution provides last-mile shipping data to help the company understand when goods reach a retailer and when packages are opened. The shipping label will cease to operate once the package to which it is attached is opened.

Condition monitoring is critical, Geerkens says. If a label captures temperature, moisture or shock data outside of acceptable parameters, Bayer knows that product may have been compromised. The Smart Label provides device management from the cloud for configuring label profiles or applications, such as temperature parameters. In the future, Castro reports, “Sony will also be able to accomplish anonymous analytics of label data to give more insights to our customers.” This will include details enabling users to predict the time required for parcels to move through a specific port during particular times of the year.

Bayer is currently piloting the labels by applying them on packages packed in different regions and countries around the globe. It will then be able to monitor logistics and environmental conditions during a product’s journey to a customer, as wellas when it is opened. The pilot began in October 2020, Geerkens says, and it has since confirmed that the labels work well, and that the battery life meets the needs of the company’s supply chain.

In the long term, Geerkens expects millions of labels to be used. “With a low-cost label,” he states, “more products could be tagged.” The system can also monitor products sold on commission. If a customer returns a product, its label can be used to confirm the package was not opened, and that the product is thus genuine. Following the pilot, Bayer plans to commercialize the label for its own use in 2022.

Sony is setting up a label manufacturing plant to automate production and increase output for the disposable labels. According to Sony, other companies that might acquire the Smart Label solution include manufacturers, raw material suppliers, car and truck makers, pharmaceutical companies, retailers, healthcare providers and agriculture firms. “The technology is removing barriers for asset monitoring,” Ilan states, and that may enable mass adoption of the Internet of Things.