February 25, 2019

What is Data Logging?

Data logging sounds complicated, but can actually make managing your supply chain a lot easier. Think about it. How much have you lost in goods damaged during transit? What if you could just prevent the damage in the first place? It’s a no brainer, right? And that’s exactly what data logging can do by implementing efficient monitoring. So what exactly is data logging? Take a look at this comprehensive definition of data logging and all its components.

How many times have you dealt with goods that were damaged in transit? This becomes a reoccurring scenario without efficient circumstance monitoring in place to prevent it from happening again. But what can stop this reoccurring theme is by utilising data logging. It's a process that uses a data logger to collect and record data over time in different environments.

Due to the advancement of technology, namely IoT, any out-of-tolerance conditions alert you even in real time. With all that said, let's discover how the logging process functions in more detail and learn about the different types of sensors that exist.

Defining data logging

Data logging is the process of collecting and storing data over a period of time in different systems or environments. It involves tracking a variety of events. Put simply, it is collecting data about a specific, measurable topic or topics, regardless of the method used. While data logging generally is associated with devices, even looking at a thermometer daily at a set time and writing down the temperature on a piece of paper with a pen is a rudimentary way to "log data". In other words, it's methodical collection of information.

In modern industries, data is most often collected and stored using a data logger. A data logger is an electronic sensor device with a microprocessor and a memory. Typically, the data is then manually transferred to a computer by retrieving the device and plugging it into the computer’s USB port for data downloads, though it can also be transferred to a cloud system. Cloud databanks are the most efficient option for storing the collected data in most use cases.

Most data loggers are designed to track very specific types of information. For supply chain purposes, the most commonly collected information is that regarding the transport and shipping environment. With this information, you can audit your supply chain processes to identify inefficient environments and activities.

Of course, while that aforementioned pen-and-paper approach is an option for some very basic use cases, it is by no means viable for any large scale monitoring. That's why we have developed data loggers to automate the whole process. The technology is available, so there’s really no reason not to utilise it.

It is important to note that if the collected data is not used for either verification or corrections, the it is largely useless. Knowledge is meant to be used.

  1. Monitor & log data
  2. Identify issues
  3. Fix them
  4. Repeat

Now, let's get on into specifics.

How data logging works?

Data from the logging process is recorded from a single or multiple sensors (input). Examples of these inputs gathered and measured are sound, temperature, ambient light, soil moisture, voltage, etc.

An actual data logger is made up of 3 components - a microprocessor, memory, and sensor(s). Generally, this electronic device is battery powered, but some can be connected to external power. This data is stored within the battery-powered electronic device, a computer or now in the cloud securely within seconds, which allows for instant access to the full history.

Logger devices take readings at predetermined times throughout that day that can range from one every few hours or more to real-time. Typically the longer the measurement interval, the longer the battery will last.

Types of data loggers

Data loggers allow conditions to be measured, documented, analysed, and validated in an automated process. The purpose is to use the collected information for the verification or correction of processes; that is, for the improvement of methods and results. Some of the types of parameters that can be monitored are temperature, humidity, light, and shocks (from movement).

Depending on the type of data to be collected, a data logger may accept analog or digital input, or both. For example, analog input is required for monitoring temperature, pH, and humidity. When it comes to choosing a data logger, there are four main types: standalone, wireless, computer-based and web-based. The choice you make will depend on what kind of environment you wish to deploy the logger.

As established previously, data loggers can be battery operated or connected to external power. The majority of sensors for supply chain purposes are battery powered units, allowing them to be placed where you need them. Depending on what type of data you need to track, you can set devices to take readings at scheduled intervals, and some loggers are capable of collecting real-time data. Note that real-time tracking drains battery power faster, but it may be necessary for certain types of measurements.

Additionally, devices may be single-channel input or multi-channel input. A single sensor device can record only one parameter at one location. Multi-channel devices connect multiple sensors simultaneously and are more versatile, being able to monitor more conditions at once. If you’re looking into multi-channel data loggers, you will want to consider just how many inputs you’ll need.

The simpler the device is, the more likely it is to perform well at the task it is designated to, while complexity allows for versatility. Keep in mind that the more inputs a device has available, the larger it is and the more battery power it uses.

Four basic types of data loggers

Other than that, there are four primary types of data logger - standalone, wireless, computer-based, and web-based. Here’s what to know about each:

  • Standalone sensors - These are typically small, transportable sensors that come with a USB port, which allows data to be transferred to a computer. If the model has an internal sensor, it can track data at the deployment location. Models with external sensors are used to monitor conditions away from the logger’s location.
  • Wireless sensors - Wireless loggers eliminate the manual process of retrieving and compiling data from various systems. That’s because they can access data via mobile devices, Bluetooth, or other wireless options and transfer it to a cloud-based platform. 

Standalone loggers are usually small, transportable and come with a USB port that allows data to be transferred to a computer. Models that have internal sensors can track data at the deployment location, whereas models that have external sensors are used for monitoring away from the logger.

A wireless logger that can access data via mobile devices and other wireless options such as Bluetooth, eliminates the manual process of retrieving and compiling data from various systems. This is because it uses a cloud-based platform. The main advantage being the speed at which upload of data is transmitted to the platform - it takes seconds which gives instant visibility all through the supply chain. Logmore's service is a good example of using wireless loggers together with a cloud-based databank.

Logmore's QR data loggers are wireless, but some of the current data is visible on the screen as well. Photo by Taru Vanhala.

The big advantage of wireless sensors is that data uploaded to a cloud platform is transmitted much faster (it takes only seconds) than manually retrieved data. And that information is instantly visible throughout the supply chain, aiding in communication that allows quick decisions to be made.

  • Computer-based sensors - These are sensors connected to a computer, so that the software provides real-time visuals of data the sensors are uploading and instant data analysis. The downside is that the data accessibility is limited by the system the sensor runs on.
  • Web-based sensors - This kind of logging system is connected to the internet with either a wireless network or ethernet cables. The collected data gets transferred and stored on a remote secure web server. The data can then be accessed and processed when you’re ready.

Web-based sensors are capable of real-time monitoring and alerts. However, that does make them consume more energy than measuring at intervals, so real-time alerts require either an electrical cord or shorter operating periods.

The majority of devices are general purpose data loggers. But there are also devices that are optimized for a specific type of connection or reading, such as tracking temperature. You’ll want to consider the application before selecting data logger devices.

In a computer-based system the sensors module that log data is connected into the computer, which means the software on the computer provides instant data analysis — in addition to this, offering real-time visual display when the sensors are updating. While the data is instantly accessible, it's also limited by the system it is based on.

A web-based logging system is connected online via a wireless network or ethernet cables. Collected data is transferred to a remote secure web server and stored, which can be accessed and processed later. The main benefit of web-based loggers is the capability for real-time alerts - which are also the main drawback. Operating in real-time consumes a lot more energy than periodical measuring, leading to either requiring a power cord or having a shorter operational time.

The Log-WAN data logger by Loggs uses the LoRa network for its data upload.

Data loggers are not the same as data acquisition systems, which are a much more expensive system for collecting data samples. They’re also much less portable than sensors for data loggers.

Discovering more sensors in real-world scenarios

Now that we've recognized the common types of data loggers, we can move on to specifics, namely the sensors and their typical uses. Let's find out more about the typical ones that are used for circumstance monitoring.

1. Cold chain process

It is imperative that goods sensitive to temperature changes such as food, pharmaceuticals, medical products, chemicals, etc. These things need to be monitored regularly for temperature fluctuations. Failure to stay within parameters can lead to spoiled products and hazardous cargo that has to be disposed of, leading to revenue losses. Just as damaging is the potential for spoiled goods to be delivered to end customers, resulting in damaged reputation and future revenue losses.

In 2017, the cold-chain logistics spending was globally over $13 billion for biopharmaceutical goods alone - of which at least 20% is estimated to be damaged during shipping.

20%? That’s a lot of lost inventory. Unacceptable, from both financial and environmental standpoints. But with a logging solution that logs any variations in temperature which is above a specified threshold, these incidents can be investigated even at the moment they occur because of the cloud service. that kind of damage is preventable with proper data logging, by recognizing and correcting insecure conditions before (more) losses occur.

If you're particularly interested in data logging in a pharmaceutical context, take a look at Three Reasons Data Logging is Vital for Your Pharma Company. I personally recommend reading it regardless of industry, as it highlights the importance of monitoring.

2. Too humid or too dry? 

Unmonitored environmental conditions that damage expensive inventory is a preventable cost. Being kept in too humid or dry conditions ruins a wide variety of items. Condensation due to changes in temperature combined with humidity can cause electronic devices to short-circuit, musical instruments such as guitars, violins and pianos may be damaged by drying out too much, and fine art suffers from both high and low humidity.

Needless to say, all the aforementioned products are often highly valuable, and ensuring the right environmental conditions can save a massive amount of money. If the item is completely irreplaceable due to extreme rarity, losing it to such simply avoidable mistake would be tragic.

It's also easy to forget that the food we consume is every day is dependent on the plants that need to grow in stringent conditions to produce optimal yield. The sensors included in many loggers automatically record humidity and temperature data where it is accessible by everyone in the team - allowing them to utilize the data to make the growing process much more efficient in the long run.

3. Shocks that can lead to breaks

Sensing shock using a logger is vital for monitoring highly valuable and fragile goods in transit by truck, train or shipment. For shock monitoring, the logger is fixed onto the cargo to record and measure whether the item has suffered shocks bigger than the acceptable limits. All of which can provide insight for corrective action from the data history.

On the surface, a fragile electronic device may look like it is fine, but a minor impact may cause irreparable damage. By monitoring impacts, quality assurance can point out the moment a shock has occurred and possibly damaged the product, either to correct points where problems frequently occur, or simply for insurance purposes.

Again, this information can then be used to improve transport procedures. And keep in mind that electronic devices can be more fragile than they appear. Externally, it may look like they arrived intact, but shocks could lead to internal damage that leaves the product broken.

4. Tilts that can indicate theft

Many products, like certain chemicals and electronics, absolutely have to stay in an upright position through their shipping and storing.

A tilt sensor continuously monitors the orientation or inclination of the item. If the position of the device has dramatically turned on its axis (there could be many), the product may be ruined for good.

5. Light sensors

Quite simply a data logger can detect if natural light is detected on a product. For example, paintings can degrade faster if they are exposed to light for extended periods in museums, ironically.

Another use of light-detecting sensors is to confirm that a package stays unopened by placing a sensor inside the packaging, or to monitor light conditions in places that favour darker lighting for one reason or another.

Common applications, summed up

The most common use cases for different data loggers include:

  • Cold chain process - Items being transported through a cold chain process are sensitive to temperature, and that makes it a top priority to keep them at appropriate temperatures. Such goods include things like food, chemicals, medical products, and pharmaceuticals.
  • Humidity levels in shipping and storage - Many products have to be kept in an environment within certain humidity parameters. Being too moist or too dry can potentially damage the goods. And fluctuating humidity levels can lead to condensation that can cause damage to items like electronics, musical instruments, and fine art. Overly drying conditions can also damage instruments and art pieces.
  • Shocks during transport - Sensors can also detect movement, and that’s useful for monitoring for heavy jostling and shocks in the case of fragile goods being transported. The data logger, in fact, can be placed on the cargo to record impacts beyond acceptable limits.
  • Positional disturbance - For products that have to stay upright during shipping and storage, sensors can also check for tilt. Examples of such items include chemicals that could spill or electronics that could topple and break. Continuous monitoring is needed for such prevention.
  • Light sensitivity - Items that are sensitive to being exposed to direct light can also be monitored with a data logger that detects natural light. Some products break down and lose quality in direct sunlight. That includes many food items, and items such as fine art.

Benefits of using electronic data logging

As said, any recording of information is technically data logging. Drivers in the supply chain could manually take environmental measurements and write them down. But that is a lot less effective and less accurate than having the conditions continuously monitored. 

You’ll also save time, money, and resources by having a sensor device take measurements rather than taking time out of individuals’ schedules for measuring and recording data. Instead, the collected information goes right to the people who need it for analysis and planning.

Once you have data loggers in place, you’ll start finding areas for improvement in your supply chain right away. Here’s how the process works:

  1. The sensor monitors and logs the data.
  2. You identify the issues.
  3. You fix the issues (or delegate someone to do so).
  4. And then you continue with monitoring and making improvements.

Other data logging considerations

In addition to all the basic information, there are some things you may want to consider as you look at data logging options:

  • Data logger sizes - Space is a limitation for most applications. The good news is that many compact and portable data loggers are available (Logmore's being at the top of the list).
  • Speed and memory - As mentioned in the section on types of data loggers, devices can operate with manual data download or cloud downloads. And these different varieties have different processing speeds and different data download speeds, as well as varying amounts of memory. Memory quantity is important because it determines how much data input a device can record until the data is transferred to the computer or cloud. Memory is less of an issue for real-time monitoring.
  • Type of storage - You may be concerned about lost data if a battery-operated device loses power. Many data loggers use non-volatile memory for data storage, so the data will be safe even if the battery fails.
  • Input expansion capabilities - Many data logging devices have a fixed number of input channels. But some have expansion capabilities to add input channels.
  • Measurement accuracy of the device - More accuracy is not always better when choosing a device. It depends on the application you are putting it to. For instance, in temperature readings, a 1 degree Celsius variability in accuracy is not typically a problem. However, some applications may require highly accurate readings, within 0.01 percent of actual conditions.

That said, temperature is one of the most commonly monitored parameters. So you wouldn’t need a more expensive device for basic temperature input.

  • Device longevity - Many data loggers can operate reliably for years. More durable and longer lasting devices tend to increase the upfront cost, but you won’t have to replace them as frequently.
  • How alarms are sent - If you’re using a sensor for inventory in a storage and shipping facility, localized alarms with lights or buzzers can work just fine. In transit situations, you’ll need a device that sends the alert to a cloud platform to notify you digitally. 

Data logging helps reduce the amount of goods damaged and products lost for your business. Working with technology savvy carriers will maximize the benefits of monitoring because it means you’ll be able to communicate notifications and alerts, and count on drivers and other supply handlers to notify you as necessary.

Did you enjoy the article? You can get a better introduction to our company by reading the post Who, what, why is Logmore? Take a look at our blog posts Datafication: Using Data Logging as a Business Development Tool and Tech Innovations in Supply Chain as well.

At this point you may also be interested in taking a closer look at the Logmore service, we might be able to help you with your problems. And hey, you can also book a meeting with us if you'd rather talk!

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