SensorLogic says customers can build tracking systems using a bag of ‘widgets.’
Developing a system to track cargo as it moves around the country or around the world can be a daunting process.
But SensorLogic, a Boston-based firm, said that through the use of pre-built modular software, it calls ‘widgets,’ the time needed to put together tracking applications can be shortened to a matter of days, even hours.
And by offering tracking in a ‘platform as a service’ (PaaS) customers can avoid a large upfront investment and ‘pay by the sip,’ said Michael Campbell, president and chief executive officer of SensorLogic. ‘You only pay for what you use and you’re not paying for anything more than that. So it allows customers to scale up and down based on their requirements.’
SensorLogic’s focus on the freight industry is relatively recent, but the company is not a start-up, having been created in 2002 initially ‘to solve a broader set of problems in what might be referred to as the machine-to-machine or M2M industry,’ Campbell said. These involve tasks such as deploying wireless sensors and sensor networks in places such as oil fields and manufacturing facilities to gather data that is fed into automation and management systems that control industrial processes.
SensorLogic, which recently moved its headquarters from Plano, Texas, to Boston, is backed by several venture capital firms: Boston Millennia Partners, Sevin Rosen Funds, Covera Ventures, Star Ventures, STARTech Early Ventures, and UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund, the private equity strategic investment arm of UPS.
UPS said its fund ‘focuses on products, services and technologies that can reshape industries and expand our ability to provide our customers with business solutions that synchronize the flow of goods, information and funds.’
SensorLogic has annual sales of less than $10 million, and have been growing 20 percent to 30 percent a year.
‘As the company evolved, what it realized was ‘ how complicated and sometimes expensive it was to deploy relatively simple tracking and monitoring applications,’ Campbell said. ‘The best example is container tracking and the telematics industry.
‘I, for one, didn’t understand why it was complicated to do that, why it was so expensive and why more of the market wasn’t doing it. The reality is that the hardware that’s used to track trailers, containers, trucks, ships and so forth, is all over the board. There are no standards whatsoever around the tracking hardware,’ he said.
‘The other issue is that they all operate on different networks and there is different technology. Even if it’s just something you’re tracking in the U.S. over a wireless network ‘ Sprint and Verizon and T-Mobile and AT&T have very different networks and ways you interact with them, get devices on them, and so forth.’
The problem gets even more complex, he said, with international cargo or shipments moving via several transport modes, and that complexity made companies reluctant to invest in such systems.
Despite those differences, he said all tracking applications have similarities. They involve connecting to a device that has to communicate over some kind of network. Then basic business rules and event management logic are set against the device, and the system sends out reports or alerts when, for example, a shipment arrives at a location, or temperature or humidity goes outside of a predetermined range, if a truck goes off a predetermined route, or a pallet moves outside a ‘geo fence’ around a warehouse.
SensorLogic asked, ‘why don’t we take on that burden of the technology, and let the shipper, the enterprise customer, or the systems integrator worry about the specific subtleties of what the application looks like,’ Campbell said.
So the firm has focused on ‘bringing a set of building blocks to the marketplace so that anyone who wanted to build and deploy one of these applications could do it probably in 90 percent less time and at 90 percent less cost than if they were going to do it on their own.
‘And what’s incredibly disruptive and exciting about what we’re doing is that we’re using cloud computing,’ he added. Instead of using its own computer, a company can ‘use the Internet to deploy these tracking applications.’ The company calls its PaaS for asset-tracking Cirrus.
While he would not reveal specific customer names, Campbell gave the example of how SensorLogic assisted a Fortune 100 consumer packaged goods company that wanted to track cargo moving on trucks of 13 different transportation companies used to move product from manufacturing plants to distribution centers, and ultimately to grocery stores.
‘They were finding that a large number of pallets with the product were going to the wrong distribution centers. The cost was very significant in terms of rerouting,’ he said. ‘This wasn’t a problem of tracking the truck, it was a problem of tracking something that was on the truck.’
The company used disposable GPS devices that it could put on pallets.
‘Then they could do one of two things. They could create a geo fence for the shipment and say, this thing has to go to Topeka, Kan., and if it goes anywhere else we want to get a notification that it did.’ Alternatively, they could track the pallets, and if the customer said it did not receive a pallet, it could use the system to find and reroute it.
‘The nice thing about our platform is that it’s not hard-coded or hard-wired to any particular tracking technology,’ Campbell said. So, in the example above, if the customer wanted to put a passive RFID reader on the truck and an RFID tag costing 10 cents or 25 cents on each pallet, the same platform could be used.
‘In a SensorLogic platform, you can literally plug all those technologies into one place ‘ it doesn’t change their application at all,’ he said.
He compares the platform to a bag of Lego blocks.
‘The customer, on its own or with a systems integrator, can say ‘build me an application that looks like this. And here’s how I want the information to be pushed out, here’s what I want it to look like and here’s why I want access to it,’ ‘ he said.
Customers ‘use these building blocks and it is just kind of copying and pasting code into an application browser. We’ve written the whole platform in Java, but the good news is our customer doesn’t have to work with Java code. The most they will mess around with in terms of code is HTML, and if someone can build a Web site, or a Web application, that’s all the expertise they need to do this,’ Campbell said.
His company has a handful of turnkey applications for package and vehicle tracking, and what he calls ‘security resources’ such as armored vehicles. But he said its platform is ‘almost limitless in terms of the way you can access the information.’
Shippers can ask for reports on every shipment, or only if a shipment goes to the wrong place.
‘We have a customer in Australia where the initial screen when you log onto their system has green, yellow or red lights and they simply indicate the condition of the process that’s going with their application and the things they’re tracking. It’s only when they see a condition red that they want to get more details. They click on that particular vehicle to find out what’s going on,’ he said.
In addition to providing turnkey applications, SensorLogic also allows customers to ‘roll their own’ applications, using the widgets it has developed.
For example, he said a customer who wanted to track shipments in refrigerated containers as they move around the country, and monitor that temperature and humidity were remaining in range could have an application up and running in a production environment ‘in a day, and I mean a day,’ using its widgets, which he said are fully documented.
Information can also be fed into distribution resource planning modules in SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft ERP systems that many large companies use to manage distribution centers, logistics and supply chains.
Campbell said his company’s product is not delivered as a traditional enterprise application where the customer makes a large upfront payment and annual maintenance cost.
‘It is completely by the drink. If you’re a shipper and you call and say, I just want to start tracking 2,500 trailers or X number of pallets of cargo, that’s all they pay for,’ he said.
Cost depends on how many assets are being tracked and how much functionality a shipper wants ‘ as low as $12 a year to $200 a year, depending on what is being tracked.
‘Our platform is technology agnostic. Satellite tracking is very expensive so you have to say, ‘at what price is it worth getting this information?’
‘But to us it doesn’t matter at all. As long as there is a technology out there that will locate or monitor a particular asset, we can read that data and push it up to an application anywhere in the world any time of day,’ he said.