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10 Min Read

From pallets to pieces: How to solve the cargo visibility puzzle

March 30, 2023 / Rodney Melton

Short on time? Read the key takeaways:

  • Today’s supply chain constantly throws challenges at cargo operations. Piece-level tracking helps meet these challenges by allowing shippers, freight forwarders and more to track shipments at the individual item level.
  • It can help organizations react in real-time to disruptions by granting more visibility and flexibility into cargo operations.
  • Integrating piece-level tracking into cargo management systems and portals streamlines the customs acceptance process for airlines.
  • It can help organizations retain revenue previously lost to spoiled, damaged and lost products.

No one wants bad asparagus. But if pallets of the vegetable sit on the tarmac too long waiting in the hot sun to be loaded, that’s exactly what will happen.

It’s not just vegetables. There are many products that must be stored at controlled temperatures for air cargo shipping — pharmaceuticals, chemicals and electronics. They can’t be left to bake or freeze. When it comes to transporting these types of goods, speed and efficiency are key. And piece-level tracking can help.

Piece-level tracking allows shippers, freight forwarders, brands and more to track shipments at the individual item level. That means they can keep track of each item’s location, status and expected delivery time. How? Each item is assigned a unique identifier, such as a barcode or RFID tag, that can be scanned or read at each stage of the supply chain, allowing for real-time tracking and monitoring.

So instead of a whole pallet of asparagus spoiling, piece-level tracking allows airline cargo control centers to notify airport ramp personnel that the pallet can be loaded as bulk shipments in available bins, speeding up the loading process. Then the only roasting that takes place is with a little olive oil and seasoning.

What are the benefits of piece-level tracking?

The supply chain of today throws frequent challenges and unexpected curveballs into cargo operations. Piece-level tracking can help organizations react in real-time to these changes by increasing visibility and flexibility.

How piece-level tracking expands visibility

By enabling detailed monitoring of individual items as they traverse the supply chain, piece-level tracking broadens the scope of visibility into the logistics ecosystem. This enhanced visibility unlocks novel insights for organizations that were previously beyond reach. With this newfound visibility, organizations can easily track inventory movement, uncover bottlenecks or delays and optimize operations to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Identifying these potential delays or issues ahead of time allows organizations to take corrective action to ensure the goods arrive at their destination on time.

How piece-level tracking adds flexibility

By implementing piece-level tracking, the cargo market of today gains a heightened level of flexibility. For instance, as some planes have narrower bodies, freight forwarders can make the most of available space by breaking down pallets and individually labeling and scanning each box. This not only optimizes loading capacity, but also ensures the accuracy of data pertaining to weight, volume, dimensions, special handling codes and dangerous goods associated with each part of the shipment.

The resulting streamlined operational efficiency grants better planning and organization of unit load devices (ULDs), storage locations and optimized planning of resources, such as forklifts. This level of detail and precision provides an advantage in load planning and weight and balance systems, ultimately leading to a more effective and optimized cargo operation.

How piece-level tracking speeds up operations

Speeding up the customs process is one way piece-level tracking can increase cargo operations’ efficiency. With each piece labeled and tracked individually, forwarders can submit itemized pieces with the correct house identifiers to customs authorities. This allows customs officials to quickly approve the individual shipments, unlike when one pallet contains multiple boxes. By having data on the contents of each box, authorities are less likely to reject the whole parcel because of an issue with one box.

With faster customs processes, your shipments can be cleared while they’re still in the air, saving valuable time and reducing the likelihood of delays.

Piece-level tracking can also increase accuracy for load planning, ULD loading and location usage because freight forwarders and cargo operators know the dimensions and weight of each parcel. Plus, piece-level tracking can ensure other facets of the value chain are accurately known per piece — not per airway bill, such as service parts logistics and dangerous goods tracking. When your cargo operations are more accurate, they run more efficiently.

When piece-level tracking is most valuable

With piece-level tracking, organizations are less likely to lose revenue due to spoiled or lost products. The latter point is particularly important for time-sensitive or high-value shipments, as piece-level tracking provides real-time updates on the safety and security of transported goods. Here are several examples:

Dangerous goods

From acids and ammunition to liquids and lithium batteries, planes carry dangerous cargo constantly. Even vehicles are included in this category as their engines have contained fuel in the past. Piece-level tracking can help ensure these shipments are labeled with the necessary warnings and paperwork and shipped correctly according to their contents.


It is a compliance requirement to know the exact location of pharmaceuticals throughout their shipping journey. Certain medicines require expedited loading and temperature-controlled shipments, as they need to be stored at specific temperatures to maintain their efficacy. Delayed loading or prolonged exposure to incorrect temperatures can render the medicine unusable, leading to financial loss and potentially hazardous health outcomes. Moreover, prolonged shipping times can introduce unwanted delays into the order-to-cash cycle.

With piece-level tracking, shippers and freight forwarders can comply with these requirements since they can see the exact shipping requirements for each item. This enables the efficient transport of goods while ensuring the necessary shipping conditions are met.

Perishable goods

The transportation of perishable goods, including food products, live animals, and biological specimens, requires time-sensitive handling. Similar to pharmaceutical transport, it’s imperative that these goods are not left sitting on the loading ramp for too long. Piece-level tracking allows shippers and forwarders to track these goods to ensure they are stored appropriately at an individual level.

Integrating piece-level tracking into your cargo operations ecosystem

Piece-level tracking enables real-time visibility into individual shipments throughout the shipping journey, helping shippers, organizations, brands and freight forwarders track individual parcels. Plus, piece-level tracking can save time and money due to the availability of client-provided data and end-to-end customer piece ID labels, which eliminate the need for label and data entry and weighing.

While visibility is one way to thrive despite modern supply chain turbulence, organizations can take this capability further. Integrating piece-level tracking into your cargo management system or portal can allow you to track and trace parcels while streamlining the end-to-end transportation process. You can see the status and history of each piece. This helps streamline the acceptance process for the airlines by having all this data already in the system before they even receive the shipment. These integrations also eliminate the need to manually capture the piece-level data, saving time and money.

Explore how you can optimize your cargo operations by increasing visibility and integrations.

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