The Smart Transportation Grid:
Improving Cross Dock Management through
Wireless Smart Mote Colonies
Grid Research Group
Agent Net, Inc.
Cross docks are a critical element of supply chains. Wal-Mart delivers roughly eighty
five percent of its merchandising using a cross docking system. Fifty percent of the items
on cross docks are at the case level. Cross docks are all about speed and meeting
retailer product demands. There is a direct correlation between improving cross dock
operations and retail profits and customer satisfaction. But cross docks continue to be
black boxes. Supply chain partners have little visibility into the cross dock. Except for
package scanning, very little data surfaces from the cross dock. Increasing visibility into
the cross dock implies faster and more reactive supply chains through optimized cross
dock processes and operations. Smart mote networks are adding a new dimension to
cross docks to create real-time environments. A smart mote is a small computing device
typically one inch square in dimension. Smart motes are intended to replace RFID as a
technology to provide greater visibility into cross dock operations, optimized processes,
and the elimination of product scanning. Smart motes provide detailed visibility into the
cross dock allowing supply chains to effect and be affected in real-time. From digital
labels to “smart” cross docks, smart motes are going to significantly impact retailer
Manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers are participating in increasingly dynamic supply
chains. With the advent of technology, stores are now able to respond to purchasing
trends at a daily pace. Manufacturers are positioning to respond to fluctuating product
demands as quickly as possible. “Just-in-time” is taking on a whole new meaning.
Supporting highly optimized supply chains requires a complete and uninterrupted flow of
information: both outbound and inbound. Supply chains are now integrating directly with
transportation management software to ensure the real-time flow of information. Any
change to the supply chain results in immediate changes to the transportation process
and a direct effect on the cross dock. Retailers are pushing manufacturers and shippers
to better utilize their information flow to meet fluctuating demands for products. Cross
docking is an integral part of ensuring that a supply chain quickly matches demand with
Whereas supply chain partners are working hard to provide unmatched visibility into the
supply chain, cross docks continue to be black boxes. Package label scanning
remains the only viable real-time information generated by the cross dock. And a
significant number of cross docks don’t use scanning technology. The scanning process
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limits the speed of the cross dock and imposes a great deal of human and equipment
cost. Improving the scanning process is expensive often requiring advance solutions
such as high speed camera-based scanners, high speed optimized conveyers, and high
speed labeling. Technology restricted to only the largest cross docks. Even in large
sophisticated cross docks there is the cost of using workers to ensure the proper
placement of packages on conveyers for automatic scanning and to resolve damaged
labels which cannot be read using cameras. Digital package labels, a solution to the
imposition of scanning, are part of the future solutions involving smart motes.
RFID is the current industry solution to eliminating package scanning. RFID tags are
attached to packages and read by dedicated remote readers during cross dock
operations. In contrast, smart motes are attached to any artifact on the cross dock
including vehicles, pallets, packages, forklifts, and transportation workers. The smart
mote is in charge of monitoring and managing their attached artifact. Smart motes do not
require readers since they have networking capabilities. As shown in Figure 1: Smart
Mote Colonies, smart motes appear throughout the cross dock. The smart motes form
networks to exchange and share data and software capabilities.
Smart motes run special software which allows them to collaborate with each other in
sophisticated ways. The smart motes may be viewed as social entities that want to work
together. When smart motes form an intelligent network, they are viewed as a colony. A
colony can speak with one voice such as a smart mote telling a transportation worker
that all packages in the Bill of Lading are present on the cross dock. Smart motes within
a colony work together to solve problems. They share a common purpose and goal.
Colonies are not discussed in this paper but further differentiate smart mote solutions
from simple RFID solutions.
Figure 1: Smart Mote Colonies
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The goals we are trying to accomplish with the application of smart motes to cross docks
Provide increased visibility into the cross dock to improve the supply chain.
Visibility is provided at all times not just at restricted points of time such as when
a package is scanned.
Reduce or completely eliminate the scanning process. Allow package tracking at
any point of the shipping process within the cross dock.
Tie cross dock management into the supply chain. Changes to the supply chain
can directly influence the cross dock in real-time.
Rapid deployment. Adding a new smart mote to a cross dock should require a
simple initialization of the device and then attaching the smart mote to the
artifact. The other smart motes will update the new smart mote autonomously
with additional data and software capabilities.
With possibly thousands of smart motes on a cross dock, it would be difficult to
manage the solution centrally. Smart motes are able to manage themselves and
resolve anomalies that occur during operations.
The cross dock environment is constantly changing with vehicle arrivals and
departures, special package handling requirements, and transportation workers.
The smart mote networks must be able to self-organize to react to changes in the
cross dock environment.
In a dynamic environment, the solution must also be dynamic. This is the ability
to change the cross dock smart motes in real-time including updating their
onboard data and software.
RFID and Smart Motes
RFID is becoming a major area of focus for enhancing package management through
the cross dock. Recent efforts are enhancing RFID tags with greater capabilities such
as the storage of digital shipping information (Advanced Shipping Notice) and location
information. But this effort is much beyond the capabilities of current RFID. A
replacement technology is already appearing which provides capabilities far beyond
those of RFID. This replacement technology can be attached to not only packages but
to any transportation artifact on the cross dock. The technology, called smart motes,
has been applied to numerous demanding markets. A smart mote is essentially a full-
fledged computer roughly one inch square. Smart motes require a battery for power
much like active RFID but through software technology can push the battery life up to 10
years. Since it is a computer as oppose to a simple transmitting device, smart motes can
run software. Smart motes will be used to provide visibility into each important artifact on
the cross dock.
Smart motes provide a number of advantages over passive or active RFID:
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Smart motes can network with each other. This allows each smart mote to
communicate with transportation workers and other smart motes.
Smart motes can evolve. They can take on data at any point in time (for
example, an updated Bill of Lading) and they can take on new software at any
point in time to increase their capabilities.
Smart motes can collaborate. A smart mote can work on a problem with other
smart motes such as locating a missing package.
Smart motes can network with software systems such as a cross dock
management system. A smart mote attached to a package can inform the
software system of the package’s contents, size, weight, barcode, SKU,
temperature, orientation, and other important characteristics.
Smart motes have a radio range of up to 100 meters.
Smart motes have onboard sensors. The can monitor any environmental factor
including temperature, humidity, light, and location.
Smart motes do not require special readers like RFID.
Smart motes can be reused by resetting their onboard data and software. A
smart mote can service any number of artifacts over its lifetime.
RFID technology has always had a cost issue which has prevented its full acceptance.
Since RFID is only used for packages, this requires a cost effective solution since
manufactures are dealing with thousands of products. Smart motes also have a cost
issue. However, smart motes are applicable to any cross dock artifact not just
packages. Smart motes can be introduced to the cross dock in a number of beneficial
ways beyond tagging packages. For package application, smart motes eliminate the
need for expensive equipment such as scanners and specialized cross dock conveyers.
And they aid transportation workers by optimizing their daily tasks. Their ROI is much
higher than RFID making the smart mote cost acceptable. Smart motes can be
integrated incrementally into existing cross docks. Each adoption level provides greater
visibility into the cross dock. The following is an example adoption flow:
1. Initially, cross dock workers carry a personal smart mote in addition to an
integrated wearable device such as an Apple iPhone.
2. Smart motes are eventually attached to all inbound pallets upon arrival and
removed and reused upon departure.
3. Smart motes are eventually attached to all inbound and outbound vehicles.
4. Manufacturer adoption begins. Pallets are tagged at the manufacturer with smart
motes. Upon departure from the cross dock, the smart motes can be removed
and returned to the manufacturer for reuse.
5. Manufacturer adoption expands. All packages shipped from a manufacture are
tagged with smart motes. A smart mote can be removed from their package upon
delivery and returned to the manufacturer for reuse.
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The Visible Cross Dock
Smart motes provide continuous visibility into the cross dock. They execute software to
allow them to collaborate. Smart motes support two-way communication: outbound to
provide information about their associated artifact and inbound to support the storage of
information. Smart motes allows transportation workers and supply chain partners to
view into the cross dock with information such as:
Which packages on the floor were handled by a particular worker.
Where on the cross dock floor is a specific package or pallet.
What packages are currently in a delivery vehicle.
Update the digital label of a package due to a change in the supply chain.
Generate alerts when a package is in the wrong location or wrong delivery
Generate alerts when environmental aspects of a package exceed
Generate alerts when the shipping process stalls such as a pallet that is quickly
approaching its scheduled delivery date.
Generate alerts when a package has determined that it may have been
Request reports directly from a smart mote including shipping history, current
status, and characteristics (height, weight, temperature).
The capabilities of smart motes are endless because they are software systems which
can be changed in real-time. Their cost is expected to drop dramatically over the next
decade. The cost savings of a smart mote makes their current price point attractive for
critical transportation artifacts.
Smart motes will also improve cross dock processes resulting in reduced labor costs,
shipping errors, increased customer satisfaction, and improved cross dock operations.
Routing arriving freight trucks. Trucks arriving to a cross dock can be routed
to the correct inbound bay within seconds of any changes that occur in the
Unloading freight. Freight can be unloaded from inbound trucks without
scanning or package positioning for specialized scanning equipment. Merely
remove the package from the vehicle and place on the cross dock or on the
Package Tracking. Packages, with their digital labels, can be tracked anywhere
and anytime on the cross dock.
Freight Location. Positioning freight on the cross dock is extremely important.
Due to changes in the shipping environment, freight may have to be resorted or
repositioned on the cross dock. Smart motes provide instructions for the
transportation worker as to where to locate and move freight.
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Departing vehicles. The distribution of freight among outbound delivery vehicles
must be able to change based on the most recent supply chain information.
Cross Dock Artifacts
The following sections describe the application of smart motes to specific cross dock
Smart motes will be attached directly to shipment vehicles. This includes inbound freight
trucks and last-mile delivery vehicles. The smart motes maintain information about their
payloads including any digital versions of shipping documents (Bill of Lading, Master Bill
of Lading, Advanced Shipping Notice). The smart motes also maintain valuable
processing information such as when the doors were last opened, identification of
transportation workers accessing the vehicle, and inside temperature. Finally, smart
motes will convey any special instructions to the transportation worker as to how to
effectively unload the vehicle payload.
In the near term, a smart mote will be attached to each wrapped shipping pallet. The
smart mote maintains information about the pallet including the travel history (where the
pallet has been), the weight of the pallet, the packages within the pallet including their
detailed information, and the GPS location of the pallet. Any digital versions of shipping
documents may also appear in the smart mote. As with smart motes attached to the
vehicle, the pallet smart mote may contain special handling and unloading instructions.
In the far term, a smart mote will be attached to each package and will be considered
disposable. The smart mote is viewed as a digital label. The cost of smart motes will
eventually drop in price to make it reasonable to place a smart mote on each package.
To counter costs, smart motes can be removed from their packages by the delivery
worker during the final delivery and returned to the manufacturer for reuse. The cost of a
smart mote will more than offset the costs of hand-held scanners and autonomous
scanner/camera equipment. These digital labels provide a number of advantages over
Transmits identification data (weight, dimensions, bar code, SKU identifier) over
100 meters to other smart motes, transportation workers, and cross dock
management software. No need to scan the package.
Transmits historical data such as where the package has been and who handled
Transmits environmental data such as temperature, package position (side,
vertical, lateral), and humidity.
Transmits information such as the best travel route to the destination, any
dependencies on other packages, handling requirements, and alerts for potential
damage. Packages within a delivery vehicle can even form a network to ensure
that the packages belong together (share the same relative destination address).
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Receive updated information such as changes to the digital label, identifiers such
as the SKU, digital shipping documents, and any changes to acceptable
Any other capability because the onboard software can be changed at any time.
Each transportation worker has an attached smart mote which contains identification
information. The smart mote also stores historical information including which packages
they have handled, which vehicles they have loaded/unloaded, and their travel paths on
the cross dock during the day. The smart mote acts as a digital time card recording
when a worker enters and exits the cross dock. Finally, the smart mote contains task
information for the worker.
A smart mote will be used to store tasks and instructions for their managed forklift. This
includes package movement instructions such as the source (which inbound truck) and
the destination (location on the cross dock). Any special handling instructions for a
particular pallet will be stored on the smart mote. The forklift operator will then have
their personal smart mote communicate with the forklift smart mote to retrieve the
operator’s instructions for the task.
Each transportation worker carries a wearable device which has an attached smart
mote. The wearable device will consist of a consumer smart phone such as the Apple
iPhone or the Google Nexus One. The attached smart mote allows the device to
participate with other cross dock smart motes.
The worker wearable device is a critical element to improving the effectiveness of cross
docks. The device is running cross dock management software and is providing the
worker with the latest information including:
Their current task plus any special instructions.
Their next task(s) plus any special instructions.
Digital delivery documents which were retrieved from smart motes on the cross
Any alerts requiring attention. These alerts originated from other smart motes on
the cross dock. For example, a smart mote attached to a package indicating that
it has been damaged. Or a smart mote attached to a forklift indicating a need for
Figure 2: Example Transportation Worker Wearable Device shows an example device.
The device is an Apple iPhone with an attachment that provides an embedded smart
mote, additional battery, and additional sensors beyond those on the iPhone. The Apple
iPhone makes an excellent wearable device because of its large display, onboard
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sensors, 30-pin connector, and easy means on which to load applications. The figure
shows a vehicle smart mote sending a digital Bill of Lading to the worker device.
Figure 2: Example Transportation Worker Wearable Device
Wireless Smart Mote Networks – A Primer
Smart mote networks are collections of distributed wireless devices that observe and
respond to events within an environment. Smart motes have evolved from simple
sensors to full fledge computer systems able to execute software solutions. A smart
mote typically consists of five components on a small (1 inch square) platform:
Microprocessor. For example, the Texas Instruments MSP430.
Transceiver (transmitter and receiver). For example, the Texas Instruments
Figure 3: Smart Mote Physical Layout shows a typical physical layout of a smart mote.
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Figure 3: Smart Mote Physical Layout
The transceivers support a networking protocol to allow smart motes to communicate
with their environment. The networking protocol predominately used in the industry is
Zigbee. Zigbee is a protocol specifically for wireless networking devices that require
long battery life. The Zigbee protocol not only allows smart motes to communicate with
existing networks but also allows smart motes to communicate with each other to
exchange information and to form dynamic networks.
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