The shiny new car in the dealer’s showroom might not be quite as new as you think. It could be over a year since it rolled off the production line.
Car manufacturing is located in hotspots around the world and finished vehicles are shipped across the oceans to the destination country. But while those journeys might take weeks, they’re not where the majority of the unsold vehicle’s time is spent; most of that happens in the bonded lot where a car can sit for months.
“According to our research, the businesses involved in finished vehicle logistics now realize that inefficiencies occur not so much [during transport] as they do in the manufacturing facility, [bonded lot] or distribution center,” explains Gil Messerman , CTO with Sogo Services, an Israeli software services company. “And when [the inefficiencies] do occur, the entire supply chain is affected, as yard managers cannot handle them effectively due to no real-time and accurate information throughout the entire facility, unoptimized processes or a lack of staff.”
South Korean auto maker Kia Motors produces more than 1.4 million vehicles a year at 14 manufacturing and assembly operations in eight countries. For example, the company’s popular Rio model, now in its fourth generation, is assembled in South Korea and Mexico to be shipped across the globe. The Rio models are sold and serviced through a network of more than 3,000 distributors and dealers covering 172 countries.
One such distributor is Tel Aviv-based Kia Israel. The company was determined to significantly improve the efficiency of its supply chain and issued Sogo a challenge: Come up with a system to reduce the time it takes to locate a specific vehicle among the thousands in the bonded lot to minutes, without adding scanners, gates, base stations or other expensive infrastructure.
It was a problem Sogo took on with relish, and innovatively solved with the help of its Cloud-computing and AI expertise, and Nordic Semiconductor-powered Bluetooth LE wireless technology.
A bonded lot is typically situated near the unloading dock and accommodates thousands of vehicles prior to customs clearance. Security is tight and access restricted. When a customer enters the dealer and orders a car, the dealer contacts the distributor for delivery of a vehicle from the stock at the bonded lot. The car is then registered, passes through customs and is shipped to the dealer’s showroom.
Managing a bonded lot is no trivial task. Conventional working practice is to write down the location of the vehicle once it’s parked. But that system is flawed, particularly because it relies on humans. First off, it’s all too easy for workers to write down the wrong location. Next, the vehicles are packed in tight to make the most of the space in the lot so extricating one can mean moving three or four others - which are often not returned to their alloted space.
If a vehicle is not where it should be, workers have to wander around the approximate location scanning all the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) as the cars have no license plates, in the hope they can find the misplaced one. And while possibly exaggerated, industry insiders tell stories of occasions when many staff have searched for several days to locate cars. Apart from being a tedious task for the people involved, this is not an efficient way to conduct a car distribution operation.
While this is far from how Kia Israel conducts its business, the company was keen to keep improving. So it engaged Sogo to find a way to locate an individual vehicle “within minutes and without installing new infrastructure”.
That discounted options like fixed cameras, scanners or drones. Instead, with its experience of the IoT, Sogo explored the option of wireless asset tracking. Cellular was dismissed as too expensive to put in every vehicle, and Wi-Fi required too much battery power. Short range wireless proved both inexpensive and battery friendly.
Bluetooth LE won out over the other short range options because of its interoperability with smartphones, which, conveniently, every worker in Kia Israel’s operation already carried in their pockets.
The foundation of Sogo’s solution—branded ViLOG—is formed by Bluetooth LE beacons (from a third party manufacturer, MokoSmart) equipped with Nordic nRF52 Series Bluetooth 5 SoCs. Each vehicle is ‘tagged’ with a battery-powered beacon which is coupled with the car’s VIN.
When a staff member initially parks the car in the bonded lot, information is sent from the beacon via its Bluetooth LE link to the associated smartphone app - eliminating paperwork and human error. By referencing the smartphone’s GPS, the app then sends the vehicle’s positional information to a Cloud-based database. If the car is moved to process it or access other vehicles nearby its new position is immediately sent to the server, removing the need to park it back in the same spot.
But the real beauty of the system is how it maximizes Bluetooth LE tech’s interoperability with smartphones; not only are vehicle positions determined when they’re moved, but the locations of all of them are continually ‘calibrated’ as workers move around the lot, via the app on the smartphones in their pockets.
“The standard beacon power is sufficient such that the worker doesn’t have to be directly by the vehicle. They could even be driving a vehicle nearby,” explains Messerman. “The phones can gather signals from thousands of beacons as people move around the parking lot. The beacons simply broadcast their ID which is referenced to a specific vehicle by ViLOG servers. Because no vehicle’s sensor information or location is transmitted, the power efficiency of the beacon is maximized.”
When a worker needs to find a car, it’s simply a case of typing the VIN into the app which will then guide them to the precise spot in just the time it takes to walk there.
The system even includes an option to use beacons in fixed locations for triangulation when GPS is inaccessible, such as within indoor parking lots.
According to Messerman, the system brings many advantages beyond the elimination of costly infrastructure. A key advantage is low maintenance because the ultra low power characteristics of the Nordic SoC extend the battery life for up to a year, not to mention the SoC’s 85oC maximum temperature rating which helps it keep working inside a car parked in the intense Mediterranean sun.
“We chose Nordic’s technology because it’s proven and mature,” adds Messerman. “That’s very important because we’re a software company and need ‘fit and forget’ hardware. But in the rare case there might be a failure we’ve implemented a ‘last known position’ feature which at least narrows down the vehicle’s possible location.”
The system is working well. “With ViLOG, Kia Israel significantly improved inventory turnover. We know exactly where each of our 10,000 cars is located, and waste no time tracking the 700 cars [we move] daily,” said one Kia Israel Executive.
Sogo has completed its own analysis of the effectiveness of ViLOG and found vehicles were located virtually instantly leading to a reduction in vehicle processing time of 20 to 40 percent, labor costs by 50 percent and storage costs by 25 to 40 percent. And perhaps most importantly of all, time for processing and delivery to customers is reduced by two days per vehicle.
ViLOG also allows distributors to improve future operations thanks to the power of ‘big data’. Analysis of such information enables customers to continuously optimize how they run their operations. “The system enables well-informed process optimization thanks to better visibility into such metrics as storage and processing time per vehicle and allows for improved resource planning thanks to historical insights,” explains Messerman.