The viability of RFID for use with reusable containers in material handling is now under scrutiny during extensive field tests.
This special neon-colored tag signifies to distribution center employees, and others, that this container is part of the RFID test program.
Someday, when people look up the meaning of the odd-sounding word “coopetition,” they’ll find the story of how a group of competitors, through their association, banded together to find a solution for the common good.
The association is the Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition (RPCC, Washington). The competitors are many. The cooperation is the tests and trials of oneway RFID tags used on containers through the rigors of the produce industry.
The program has been in the works for nearly two years. Field trials, which began last November, are now such that members of the association are willing to talk—with cautious optimism—about early results.
Participants in the program are all member companies and volunteers. “There’s nothing proprietary about the program,” says Fred Heptinstall, RPCC president and president and general manager of RPC management and services division, IFCO Systems (Tampa, Fla.). “We’re providing data that the industry, as a whole, can look at and determine if using RFID on reusable containers makes sense.”
“Members of RPCC wanted to resolve, once and for all, the issue of whether one-way RFID tags would be practical for reusable containers,” says Jeanie Johnson, director of the association. “We chose to work with QLM Consulting, in part, because of its involvement with EPCglobal initiatives for industry-driven standardization of RF technology.”
Michael McCartney is a principal with QLM Consulting (Sausilito, Calif.). His company has been involved with RF programs for about 10 years. “We looked at a variety of possibilities for a project of this scale,” says McCartney, “then established criteria for the tags to be used in the tests.”
Heading the list of criteria was that the tags had to be EPCglobal compliant. His reasoning was that there would be a variety of containers from different manufacturers used in the tests, so standardization was critical. Plus, since so many containers would be involved, the demand for a huge volume of tags meant there would not be time for experiments with anything unproven. “Tags had to meet existing standards,” explains McCartney, “and they had to be tags that were already in production. Nothing in beta tests.”
The first round of tests took place at Michigan State University School of Packaging. Dr. Paul Singh led the research efforts. This initial round of laboratory tests was required to cut the list of one-way-tag contenders. Tags that survived the rigors of ASTM International—a standards development organization that serves as an open forum for the development of international standards—investigation would move to the next level. An interesting aspect of this examination was the use of one-way tags—those designed to go from point A to point B and then be discarded. These are the kinds of tags made for consumer product cycles, for example. They are often less costly than tags designed for multiple trips.
McCartney says his team was looking for robustness in the tags. Tests included exposure to conditions similar to what would happen in the field: moisture and temperatures just above freezing, for example.
One hundred sixty hours and 14,000 tests later, three tags emerged for application in field tests. Before they went into the field, however, tagged containers made a stop at the RFID test lab at the Kennedy Group’s headquarters in Cleveland. Here, the containers were loaded with produce to give the tags even more real-world examination.
“We went to the Kennedy lab to test the containers loaded with real product and running through portals as they would be expected to do in the field,” says McCartney.
Portal test ing was essent ial because of the varying amounts of water in fresh produce, the product these containers would be carrying. “Water de-tunes the RF signal,” says McCartney. “So, we used a wide range of content—everything from jalapeno peppers to apples and lettuce.”
Another reason for focusing its efforts on these three products, says McCartney, is because the manner in which they are harvested results in different exertion to the containers and tags.
McCartney says the time is right for this kind of industrial application tes t ing of RFID and reusabl e containers. “We’ve gone through several generations of tag technology, each making a quantum leap over the previous version in just a short time. Readers have also improved substantially, and software advances make it possible for relevant signals to be plucked out and weaker signals to be passed over.”
Combined, all these advances offer a technology that is ready for prime industrial use, he says.
How it Works
Field trials will continue for several more months, and data analysis will take a bit longer. McCartney says this 45-to-60 day cycle mirrors the material handling cycle of crops being picked, shipped, stored and shipped again. Then, containers have to be returned, cleaned and sent back to the producers in the field.
“We’re going to run this cycle at least three times,” says McCartney, “which means checking thousands of containers to determine if there is any deterioration, in response, of the tags, etc.”
To help locate the containers in the test, McCartney has done two things. First, the RFID tags have been encased in a neon-orange-colored label holder, so they can easily be spotted. “We’ve also added a bright-yellow stripe to the bottom of the container,” he says, “so when the containers are collapsed for return, they can be quickly spotted in the stack.”
Since there are millions of containers, overall, in use in the test area, these efforts ensure all test containers are checked.
At the beginning of the cycle, RFID tags are encoded at the grower’s location. These numbers are sent to a Wal-Mart (the retailer in the field tests) Cleburne, Texas, distribution center near Dallas. The numbers are electronically “associated” with a purchase order. These numbers are checked again when the product leaves the distribution center for the retail store. At the retail level, the tag is scanned again for receipt. Empty containers are scanned again before they’re sent for cleaning. Following inspection, they reenter the cycle.
The Wal-Mart distribution center feeds 80 to 100 retail stores at a distance of about 100 miles. Containers, however, travel much farther—an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 miles, one way—between the growers and the distribution center.
McCartney says the tests are being done under the harshest of conditions for good reason. “Anyone can look at the data and extrapolate from this the ability of his product to perform in his specific supply chain.”
The economic model for reusable containers, coupled with inventory control of RF, is superior to just about any other model, Heptinstall says. In cradle-to-cradle comparison research, significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions reductions are possible when compared with corrugated containers or non-reusables.
At some point, says Johnson, other things remaining equal, recovery of the cost of a tag is much faster.
“There are three basic aspects of this program that make sense, regardless of what industry a company is in,” says Johnson. “Performance, because you’re tracing your assets; the ROI because the containers can be amortized and tags reused; and environmental issues, since neither containers nor tags are thrown away after a single use.”
Top-Five Predictions for RFID in 2008
This year’s predictions:
2. Integration of RFID into mobile devices and electronics products will expand. Handset manufacturers, network providers, search-engine companies and software providers increasingly view mobile devices and other consumerelectronics products as important tools for interacting with, and providing services to, consumers and businesses alike.
3. RFID will converge with other wireless technologies. Access to more granular information about the location, identification, movement, temperature and security of products can provide convenience and value to exacting businesses and, in turn, to consumers. As a result, the ongoing convergence of RFID, RTLS (real-time locating systems), GPS (global positioning systems), sensors and other wireless technologies in 2008 will spur a “disappearance” of these acronyms, as businesses, and individuals to a certain extent, become more accustomed to the myriad benefits they make possible.
4. RFID technologies will continue to enhance homeland security initiatives. From transportation worker identification cards to RFID-based e-Seals on cargo containers, RFID is currently being deployed in numerous ways to improve homeland security without hampering international trade. The ability to identify transportation workers automatically, using a combination of biometrics and wireless authentication, as well as e-Seals that alert officials upon unauthorized openings of containers (and account for 90% of world trade) are just two examples of how RFID will continue to address vulnerabilities in the global supply chain in 2008. E-Seals can automatically locate containers, improve operational efficiency and ultimately reduce the overall cost of transporting goods.
5. RFID deployments will gain traction within the first 100 feet of the supply chain as well as the last 100 feet at retail. International shippers and manufacturers are now focusing on item-level tagging of goods, as well as the tagging of containers at source factories, known as the first 100 feet, because it is less expensive to do so and provides greater end-to-end visibility. This strategy results in more effective management of goods and reductions in manufacturing and shipping costs. In addition, this approach enables product authentication at the beginning of the supply chain and facilitates detection of tampering—such as theft or terrorist intrusions to the container—at any point in the process, which typically involves 10 to 20 “hand-offs” of the container by different parties.
“Throughout its 35-year history, AIM Global has invested significant time and resources in closely monitoring RFID industry trends to provide strategic, real-time guidance to its diverse membership base,” says Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global. “These predictions showcase the priorities, segments and applications which enterprises can potentially leverage in the coming year to benefit their respective businesses. Furthermore, this forecast also provides strong anecdotal evidence regarding the ongoing evolution of the RFID industry and how these changing dynamics are accelerating the development of beneficial consumer-oriented applications in many different environments.”