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How Track, Trace, and Big Data Are Shaping Modern Logistics

By Dr. Robert L. Gordon | 02/21/2016 | 9:25 PM

Guest posting by Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Program Director, Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University

Who in your organization tracks goods? Who in your organization traces the path of the goods? Tracking and tracing goods is not the same thing. These two terms help define complex functions in reverse logistics, logistics, transportation, and supply chain management processes.

The study of logistics, reverse logistics, transportation, and supply chain management involves learning how to use billions of pieces of data. Data includes everything from tracking and tracing of products to the credit card used for purchases.

When I was teaching logistics and reverse logistics at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), tracking was a common word. Tracks were the paw or hoof prints in the snow or tundra or the scat or yellow snow left by an animal. A man’s snowshoe print was a clear track of a person walking through the wilds. A track is a mark left on the ground and can be permanent or not so permanent. 

A track is also a signal that has been captured from reading a barcode on a product. Or it could be the radio frequency identification (RFID) code scanned by an antenna of a tractor trailer passing through a toll both on a highway. A product’s track is the footprint left at a certain point in time.

Most people generally define a supply chain as moving goods from point A to point B. The path between those two points is a track. That track may be a shelf space in a warehouse, a shelf space in a grocery store, or a collection box in an Amazon warehouse.

Next, we turn to the trace. When we trace a set of footprints we get a map of where all those footprints have gone. If we are tracing the path of a dog mushing team in Alaska, we can readily see the paw prints and sled prints in the snow.  You can draw a trace on a map.  

In logistics, a critical trace system for goods that are traveling by truck is the interstate highway system. A trace can be just a road or it could be a set of yellow lines in a warehouse along which a forklift moves a pallet of cargo from a bin to the inside of a tractor trailer. In the future, a trace could be a drone picking up a box of shoes from an Amazon distribution center, flying up and a straight line at 400 feet to your Amazon landing pad at home, and vertically landing.

Air cargo deliveries around the US and the world also create a trace, as do cargo ships and goods that travel by rail. The hidden pipelines that lace the US carrying oil, gas, and water are also a trace, an underground road for the flow of liquid goods.

Who cares about tracking and tracing a product in the work place of logistics, supply chain, or transportation? “The ability to track and trace not only the product but the item number, and possibly a history of birth to death movements, adds a new metrical dimension of in-transit visibility to an item.” (Hedgepeth, 2007, p. 8).  How to best  define the required data for use is dependent on knowing if that data is to be used for creating a track, a place where the product resides, or a trace, a map of how long and where that product moves along a complex network of supply chains.

Who determines which data to collect and which data is to remain a permanent and pertinent part of a product and that complex network of tracing is often a hidden part of tracking and tracing goods. Technology is still evolving beyond the bar code and RFID tags to produce such data. But it is the job of the logistician to understand track and trace analysis and determine the insights needed for the most cost-effective handling of goods.


Brown, L. (Ed). (1993). The New Oxford Shorter Dictionary. Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Hedgepeth, W. O. (2007). RFID Metrics: Decision making tools for today’s supply chains. CRC Press. Boca Raton

About the Author: Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is the program director for Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management and Transportation and Logistics Management. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press and is in revision.



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About Dr. Robert Lee Gordon

Dr. Robert Lee Gordon

Dr. Robert Lee Gordon is program director of the Reverse Logistics department at American Public University. Dr. Gordon has over twenty-five years of professional experience in supply chain management and human resources. He holds a Doctorate of Management and Organizational Leadership and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix, as well earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from UCLA. Dr. Gordon has spent more than 14 years teaching reverse logistics, transportation, project management, and human resources. He has published articles on reverse logistics; supply chain management; project management; human resources; education, and complexity. He has also published four books on Reverse Logistics Management; Complexity and Project Management; Virtual Project Management Organizations, and Successful Program Management..

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