By Ryan Skinner (email)
It starts with a demand. US government has resolved to require every container arriving at US ports to be pre-scanned. The concern may be paranoid or legitimate, depending on whom you ask. Making it happen may also be ridiculously inefficient, a simple hurdle or a mind puzzle, depending on whom you ask.
But it has jump-started technology development and created a market. Cargotec, VeriTainer and SAIC are just three companies who are keen to throw themselves on that market bomb. All offer container scanning solutions.
That which was initiated to prevent vice, however, may end up serving virtue - specifically, the virtue of efficiency. Scans for radiation may be supplemented by all kinds of potential in non-invasive scanning, including RFID detection.
That means we progress from the shipment of generalized objects to specific objects. The container does not hold 500 flat-screen televisions; it holds 500 flat-screen televisions with inalienable and specific product histories. Container manifests report the former, not the latter.
RFID is already used by warehouses across the world for the purpose of managing inventory and tracking its movement in a closed-ended chain. With rapid port-side RFID scanning, such tracking would take on a much more open-ended character.
At the industrial level of shippers, such tracking would probably have little purpose. Their interest is end-to-end. But there are parties interested in interpreting and micro-managing shipments on a more granular level; that would be individuals and small businesses.
This is drop shipping on steroids. Retailers, buyers, manufacturers all become part of the freight-forwarding picture through a relatively transparent logistics picture and closer cargo scanning. It's already being done on the high-end of transport. I think we'll see it come to the low end, as well.
This has some links to a rapidly evolving concept called The Internet of Things, or the physical web. The forces that are driving the concept of the physical web - massive data storage capability, virtualization and remote manipulation - will have spillover effects on the shipping industry. We're already starting it to see with the proliferation of drop shippers. It'll grow.
Extended scanning, RFID and rule-based operations open the door to automated supply chains: Products that ship themselves. Is that messed up or what?