Speed isn't good enough when you're shipping something like transplant supplies for emergency surgery or tissue samples. You also need to be perfectly sure that what you're sending hasn't been compromised for even a second along the way. FedEx has come up with an answer: Senseaware, a drop-in sensor that pings the status of its contents to the Web, including temperature, exact location, and whether the shipment has been opened or exposed to light. There's even an accelerometer, for detecting drops. Having already completed a beta test, Senseaware will now be deployed with 50 FedEx medical clients this spring.
"Four years ago, we started thinking about the next-generation alternatives to RFID," says Mark Hamm, FedEx's VP of Innovation. What they came up with is a Web-platform, combined with a sensor the size of a Blackberry, loaded with temperature and light meters, as well as GPS and a cellular antennae. (During plane rides, the device automatically goes into sleep mode, monitoring data but temporarily silencing the data relays.) Thus, as a shipment goes out, its location can be tracked to within feet of where it is at any second, and the Web interface registers its condition in real-time—a device/platform ecosystem that Hamm likens to iPod/iTunes.
That's particularly useful in the medical industry. For example, one of the trial testers of Senseaware was a maker of one-off surgical kits, which the company sends to doctors and the doctors send back after using. Live monitoring means that doctors on the receiving end can known exactly when to begun surgical prep, thus saving them time and scheduling hassles. It gets even more complicated on the way back. The company refurbishes the kits, but they also contain sensitive materials such as bone samples. The drop-in sensor ensures the integrity, and allows the company to prepare all of its refurbishing equipment in advance, so that the kit can be refreshed and sent back out the door almost immediately after receipt—to another waiting doctor. "That's an anticipatory way of looking at shipping which has never been possible before," says FedEx spokesperson Matt Ceniceros.
But the main benefits might be economic. Where companies relying on precise logistics usually have to spend millions to install RFID monitoring systems and IT, the Senseaware currently costs just $120 a month. You just drop it into a box; the only thing you need is an Internet connection "This is pay as you go," says Hamm. "You don't need a big investment to have real-time information about your shipment."
After the trial run this spring, Hamm expects that FedEx will begin aggressively rolling out the product worldwide, and dropping the price rapidly as the project reaches scale. And once the price falls to somewhere around $10 a trip, the applications will start growing, from Christmas hams and Italian truffles, to art and irreplaceable keepsakes. FedEx is already developing new services around the device, including ways of intercepting and saving a package at risk.