Industry-Academia Collaboration of IoT Device That Instantly Turns Beer Kegs into Smart Containers
Business: The Smart Container Company Ltd.
Expertise: Manufacturing Systems Engineering
The Smart Container Company, based in Cardiff, is a technical solutions company developing the KegTracker™, a first-to-market, non-intrusive, one-size-fits-all Internet of Things (IoT) device that instantly turns kegs and casks into smart containers.
It is estimated that five billion pounds can be saved by eliminating inefficiencies in the beer supply chain each year in the UK alone. KegTracker™ aims to empower brewers, distributors, and retailers with real-time data on a keg's location, volume, temperature and motion to provide insights across the supply chain enabling new data-driven processes to reduce inefficiency and increase sustainability.
Challenges – Volume Measurement and Energy Harvesting
It is recognised that a lack of data and visibility in the current supply chain leads to slower than optimal keg returns resulting in 30% to 70% more kegs being in circulation than necessary. In addition to this, there is an annual keg loss rate of 10%.
Volume measurement is key to many of the services that the Smart Container Company wish to offer with KegTracker™ including consumption insights and inventory management.
The unique collaboration between the Smart Container Company and ASTUTE 2020 has utilised renowned manufacturing systems expertise to research methods of fluid level management and establish the feasibility of energy harvesting methods for powering the IoT device through the use of sensors.
Retrieving accurate volume measurement of sealed metal containers can be extremely challenging, particularly for large, thick containers such as the kegs used for storing beer, cold brew coffee, wine, cocktails, CO2, nitrogen, etc. with factors such as sensor position, container size, and liquid level affecting sensor measurements. Furthermore, any sensing device must also be able to take measurements in an unobtrusive way that is consistent with the KegTracker™ design while using as little power as possible.
As an embedded system, KegTracker™ depends on a power supply to run autonomously throughout the keg lifecycle to meet application requirements. However, powering mobile IoT devices without a fixed power supply is problematic and devices often rely on battery technologies with a finite power supply and lifespan that are costly and inconvenient to replace, making power management the utmost concern.
Radio-frequency Energy Harvesting. KegTracker™ transceiver could be used for transmitting and receiving both data and energy.
Energy harvesting, the process of harvesting small quantities of ambient energy from environmental phenomena, is seen as a way of extending the operational lifetime of embedded systems although the application of such systems is challenging with many environmental and design factors to consider.
“Our collaboration with ASTUTE 2020 helped us toward our goal of using this innovative technology to encourage more use of this circular economy asset to reduce the number of single-use plastic containers needed to meet market demand.”
- Eduardo Garcia
Co-Founder, The Smart Container Company
Together, ASTUTE 2020 and the Smart Container Company researched the two areas identified where advances were required for the KegTracker™ device.
A deep search across different measurement methods found a sensor capable of achieving the required sub-centimetre level accuracy while requiring only μW levels of power whilst also being applicable to KegTracker™'s design constraints.
It was also concluded that harvesting ambient or dedicated radio frequency (RF) energy with an autonomous-hybrid architecture that combined supercapacitors with primary or secondary batteries would be most suitable for maximising the operation of the KegTracker™. At present, the KegTracker™ is likely to spend a majority of its time indoors within (semi-)urban environments which typically have the most abundant ambient RF energy. The life cycle of the device also lends itself to easy application of dedicated RF power and other intelligent power management techniques.
The collaborative project between the Smart Container Company and ASTUTE 2020 has enabled the company to progress in their research and development and bring the product closer to market.
By overcoming a major bottleneck in volume measurement, they have been able to accelerate the development of their prototype device with knowledge about appropriate energy harvesting techniques influencing future design iterations. The KegTracker™ will provide the data visibility to resolve and optimise the kegs and beer product in circulation, thereby reducing the number of kegs needed and lost, and reducing the CO2, energy and water requirements to enable a more sustainable supply chain and circular economy where less waste (beer, water, gas and carbon footprint) is produced.
This innovative and exciting product will revolutionise the keg & cask industry. The success of the collaboration encouraged the Smart Container Company to invest in research, development and innovation and, as a direct result, has given investors the confidence in the Smart Container Company to further develop the KegTracker™ and bring the IoT smart device to market.