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Cargo tracking and tracing

Intermodal transport, which is using different forms of transport to convey a good, is strongly encouraged by the European Union. But it requires firms to have a reliable and efficient tracing and tracking system.

At this time of increased intra?European trade, it is vital for companies and their customers to have information in real time on the progress of their deliveries and their orders. The logic of lean supply flows makes it more necessary than ever to be able to track cargo and transport operations, particularly when one views them from the intermodal perspective. The Octopus system has been devised and successfully tested as part of the Transport Research Programme to help companies perform this delicate tracking operation.


What could be more natural than for a company to want to know, in real time, at what precise place, at which stage of delivery and in what state its cargo is to be found? The European project Octopus has analysed this kind of problem in relation to a specific set of operations, namely the transportation of reams of paper from Finland to Belgium and France for the printing of newspapers. "This research has made it possible to use and demonstrate new technologies for tracking goods in real time - what is commonly known as tracking and tracing", explains Patrick Mercier-Handisyde of the Transport Directorate-General. "For these partners, it is of course extremely important to have real-time information on the progress of these goods from their production site to the final consumer. In this way they can manage their storage and distribution terminals properly and, above all, can react very swiftly if there is any break in the supply chain."

Non-stop tracking

Ten or so companies from the paper industry, logistics, transport and information technologies put their heads together to define the architecture of a system for monitoring goods adapted to their requirements, but which would also be transferable to other sectors.

On the operational level, the Finnish paper company Enso and the Swedish paper company Holmen wanted to have a system to cover the various links in their supply chain, one leaving the Finnish territory to transport goods by sea to Antwerp and then by rail to Rouen (France), the other following a similar course from Sweden, with Lyons as the final destination. Along this delivery chain there were naturally a number of logistics service providers and transport operators, such as Enso West in Antwerp, the Finnish transport company Steveco, and Westerlund, a group specialised in the distribution of forestry products.

With the aid of information technology specialists, such as Medior Software and the Babbage Institute for Knowledge and Information Technology, these companies set up a common platform which was distributed and modulable, making it possible for them to easily communicate among themselves to identify and track goods all along the logistic chain from the factory to the consumer.

"Up to now these European companies have been faced with different intermediaries in their land and sea transport operations who quite often use different communication protocols and different methods of identification to monitor and track cargo", points out Hugo Manshoven, coordinator of the project and a member of the IT Medior Software company. "It is difficult for them, therefore, to follow their goods with clarity unless they use burdensome techniques such as EDI (Electronic Data Interchange)(1)".

Identifying and communicating

To remedy this, the Octopus system incorporates two closely interconnected levels. The first is a system for identifying and collecting information, named OctEt, developed in the form of electronic labels and read/write-terminals which identify goods and their progress on their route. This has been installed on the various links of the transport chain. The second is an open and decentralised communication system known as OctoPost, which treats this information and distributes it by electronic mail in a transparent way (that is to say, accessible - whatever the computer systems and the mail software used) to operators who wish to know the status of their cargo. Like a task organiser, OctoPost makes it possible to have a real monitoring of the various stages of delivery. "One of the advantages of this system is that it is distributed and not hierarchised (2)like Internet, and has no centre since it is a network between different terminals", stresses Dirk Vervenne (Babbage Institute, Ghent). "Its reliability does not depend on a centralised server - which would jeopardise the communication processes - but on the integration of small servers and on-site distributed terminals, guaranteeing maximum accessibility and cooperation".

Tailor-made for intermodal transport

Furthermore, this approach is very well adapted to intermodal transport, the development of which is being encouraged by the European Union. If modes of transport, different handling operations and intermediaries are multiplied, it will be essential for companies to have a reliable and efficient tracing and tracking system. This opens up interesting prospects for the marketing of a system such as Octopus.

So, with the help of a Greek information technology company known as Archetypon, substantial efforts were made to make this technology as generic as possible for it to be transposed to economic sectors other than the paper industry. In this way it was possible to test it - successfully - also on the transport of office furniture and supplies from Greece to Germany.

(1) In this instance EDI is a dialogue between the computer of a manufacturer and that of a distributor which communicate via applications which structure information and insert data. Such a system requires the setting-up of reception stations and agreement on the standards used.
(2) From the English word heterarchic, which has no French translation, but which is to be interpreted in opposition to the adjective hierarchic.

Towards distributed heterarchic workflow methods for pro-active tracing of cargo



Scientific coordinator :
Hugo Manshoven
Medior Software, Pulderbos, Belgium
Fax : +32-3-464 02 96

Scientific coordinator :
Dirk Vervenne
Babbage Institute, Ghent, Belgium
E-mail :

- Medior Software, Pulderbos, Belgium (coordinator)
- Babbage Institute for Knowledge and Information Technology, Ghent, Belgium
- TietoEnator, Espoo, Finland
- Archetypon, Kallithea, Greece
- StoraEnso West, Antwerp, Belgium
- StoraEnso Oy, Helsinki, Finland
- Holmen Paper, Norrkping, Sweden
- Vartec, Ghent, Belgium
- Steveco Oy, Kotka, Finland
- Westerlund Corporation, Antwerp, Belgium

Like a task organiser, OctoPost makes it possible to have a true monitoring of the various stages of delivery.