Last month, we had the opportunity to speak with the CEO and founder of OnAsset Intelligence Adam Crossno. OnAsset Intelligence is a leading provider of supply chain monitoring and tracking technology that helps companies track high-value or mission-critical assets across the global supply chain. The company works across a wide range of sectors and tracks everything – from life-saving immunotherapy treatments and vaccines to perishables and high-value goods. The company has created Bluetooth sensing devices that track valuable assets throughout an item’s travel to give asset owners continuous visibility into the object’s location and shipping conditions, along with a guarantee the item is getting to the right location.
Adam explains how the company started, how the technology works, and why the adoption of asset-tracking technology has ramped up dramatically in the past few years.
Can you provide some examples of the types of mission-critical assets you track?
We do a lot of work in the life sciences, electronics, pharmaceutical, and food industries. We track items not only requiring rapid transportation but some form of conditioning involving temperature handling parameters.
We are among the few asset tracking providers in the world that are fully compliant with airline regulations, and the aviation supply chain carries 35% of world trade by value. Our customers are diverse, from manufacturers to logistics companies and airlines, to specialist transportation security providers. We handle anything you can imagine that someone wants to ship that is mission-critical or high value. Customers are willing to put additional solutions in place to have visibility beyond what logistics providers typically offer. Some of our assets are extremely fragile, such as human organs for transplant that must travel within a matter of hours, and clinical trials with cutting-edge apheresis treatments that must be processed and returned to the patient in less than 48 hours. We also support the transfer of high-value servers and IT assets that need a guaranteed secure chain of custody and other theft-prone items, including truckloads of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms and even items such as high-end military equipment with special conditioning and access requirements.
How did OnAsset Intelligence get into this business?
We found our way into the market starting with RFID technology in manufacturing for visibility of goods and process flows inside a facility, and then ultimately grew into providing the same level of visibility for shipments. As you can imagine, there are numerous items within the global supply chain where the people shipping product want better visibility than entering a tracking number into a web site to see the last place the bar code was scanned. Our customers expect their items to be connected and to be visible at any point and time during shipment – that’s the service we provide.
How does your product work?
The highlight of our solution is the SENTRY, which is a fully autonomous, reusable tracking and sensing device that can be applied all the way to pallet and package level. To support the SENTRY, we recently launched Sentinel tags. The SENTRY coordinates and reports the status of a shipment while also acting as a gateway for Sentinel tags. Even if the shipment may have 50 or 100 pieces, a Sentinel captures environmental parameters for each piece, and that data is transmitted to our cloud platform through the SENTRY. The SENTRY can also be installed as a fixed gateway at origin or destination to enable Sentinel tags to be read when they hit certain supply chain milestones.
What makes this solution unique is it can be deployed at a facility or can work on the move and create seamless visibility. We are capable of moving high volumes at high velocity because we can read tens of thousands of Sentinel tags very quickly, which is critical as some of these distribution centers that have cross-docking operations and are moving hundreds of thousands of individual packages and assets through a facility. We also gain secondary benefit from the network of fixed SENTRY gateways because they provide real-time sensor information for facilities monitoring. Our cloud platform captures this data and provides a dashboard delivering real-time location and condition while alerting upon any excursions detected.
What do the Sentinel tags look like?
The tags come in a variety of sizes, depending on what the customer wants to do. The most popular size is about two-thirds the footprint of a credit card. We even have smaller devices with a slightly larger footprint than the coin cell battery powering it. We also have quite a few customers that integrate Sentinel technology into other assets, such as smart packaging and intelligent containers.
Our tags also work directly with smartphones and other Bluetooth enabled devices. Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth SoCs allow us to leverage all of these compatible devices that exist within the industrial environment. We are fortunate to be in a position where we can leverage this standardized technology instead of requiring our customers to buy a highly proprietary solution. Bluetooth becomes the bridge, providing a guaranteed compatibility path, and customers don’t need to worry about being engineered into a corner.
How has the market reacted to your asset tracking technology?
From the outset, we were a bit ahead of the curve. Most people were in a tire-kicking mode or were skeptical about the visibility we offered and struggled to recognize the value that our data delivers. But the smartphone revolution convinced people this technology could perform accurately. Ever since then, our growth has been steady, and in the last three years, we’ve experienced our most explosive year-over-year growth to date. Potential customers used to debate if they should deploy the technology or not, but now it’s not a question of if, it’s about which partner will we pick and how quickly can we roll it out. Online retailers are out there providing visibility for shipments arriving at customers’ doors, and people expect the commercial supply chain to be doing the same thing.
Why did you select Silicon Labs’ wireless technology for your solution?
Our initial exchanges with Silicon Labs’ staff were warm and accommodating, while some of the other players in the market were more standoffish. But really, Silicon Labs’ wireless product (EFR32 Bluetooth LE SoCs) performs better than other options. We tested all of the alternatives, and at the end of the day, performance wins. And Silicon Labs’ product, in conjunction with our designs, outperformed everything else. Not only did we enjoy the relationship and spirit of innovation and your product roadmap direction, but Silicon Labs simply has a better product.
Did you have any design challenges when building the product?
Our biggest challenge was network density. Bluetooth is a great technology, but it’s not known for its range and density characteristics. Bluetooth opens the door for its ubiquitous global compatibility, but it required some special engineering to make it work in industrial scenarios. These scenarios involve heavy equipment surrounded by other heavy metal and machinery. It’s not hard to design devices and conduct a small-scale trial and show customers you can capture data, but where you really differentiate yourself is deploying technology at scale in a demanding industrial environment. We also tackled real-world challenges, such as provisioning 12,000 devices in rapid succession and ensuring the data is captured, and nothing is lost when the devices transition from one location to another. It’s also important to prove in these settings that the people managing the process can do so easily, especially as many workers are often apprehensive about adopting new technology in day-to-day operations.
Have you worked with any COVID-19 related customers?
I initially thought business might slow down during the pandemic, but it’s been busier than expected. Our customers have shifted to moving a lot of COVID-related material, and we have also been tracking cutting-edge vaccine trials. Many of our airline customers are now adapting aircraft to move more cargo. The focus has shifted, but the need for real-time visibility has only increased. The pandemic is highlighting the value of this level of visibility because companies that were prepared with technology have been able to move product more quickly and offer specific information on location and delivery. But companies that are not forward-leaning on technology have experienced strains because there are so many issues impacting final-mile delivery right now, such as personnel available for transport. Many of the benefits of our tracking technology are being magnified under the current pandemic environment.
Where do you see the IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Pressure always exists to bring solution costs down. Ideally, our customers want every single unit tracked if they can afford it, but that can sometimes be cost-prohibitive. Not long ago, if someone was looking to do this, they used a fully-featured device with its own cellular communication capabilities. Now we see a future where many wireless sensors will work together collaboratively to get the job done, making each one less complex and more cost-efficient. IoT is going drive proliferation of less complex, more cost-effective devices used in much larger volumes rolling up to more feature-rich devices. Today our technology can support tens of thousands of units sitting at a dock door or port, whereas in 3-5 years, I see it being millions of units.
Additionally, there is an increasing focus on AI and supply chain automation, and our solutions play heavily in this direction. To make more efficient decisions and self-manage certain aspects of the supply chain process, more assets and shipments need to be connected and communicate with each other – this is an evolution that we are calling Cognitive Logistics. We’re excited to be collaborating with Silicon Labs to make it a reality.