Signal strength

Using RFID, fleets can identify vehicles and capture information at critical moments in their operations, such as when a vehicle moves freight in and out of gates and docks. Shown above: SmartPass from TransCore.

As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart calls the shots for thousands of suppliers and, indirectly, for other retailers. So when Wal-Mart decided to require its top suppliers to affix small microchips on products and pallets headed to its distribution centers, interest in radio frequency identification (RFID) surged.

RFID consists of an integrated circuit chip and antenna enclosed in a protective lining called a “tag.” The tag can be embedded in an object or attached with an adhesive. As products move through distribution, electronic devices blast the tags with radio frequencies, causing the tags to transmit information.

By using RFID to track pallets and cases, Wal-Mart plans to increase efficiency throughout its global supply chain by ensuring that the right amounts of the right products are in the right place at the right times. More than 137 suppliers already have begun shipping selected products at the case and pallet level to Wal-Mart distribution centers in the Dallas area.

In general, the use of RFID for product or pallet tracking hasn’t had much effect on fleets, especially for-hire carriers (see “Testing the limits” on page 60). Some for-hire carriers – particularly those in the less-than-truckload sector – have expressed interest in using RFID to track high-value and time-sensitive freight. But some users say RFID technology, based on their own internal tests, may not be ready for prime time in high-volume applications.

“Testing on pallets has shown that we have a 60 to 80 percent read on tags,” says Sherry Aaholm, vice president of technology services for FedEx Freight. And in an industry where 99.9 percent accuracy is required, the current method of using barcodes remains superior, she says.

But carriers are finding other areas in which RFID technology is useful. Tags on vehicles enable fleets to automate fee collection for toll roads, bypass weigh stations and cross international borders without delays. Some fleets also use RFID internally to track their equipment and to monitor vehicle maintenance. As the technology continues to mature, fleets are finding new ways to leverage the advantages of this low-cost form of wireless communications.

Keeping trucks moving
One of the most common uses of RFID in trucking is identification of vehicles as they roll past toll plazas and inspection and weigh stations. Most states have mobile or fixed screening sites to capture vehicle identification from a transponder – a tag attached to a vehicle. Using a shared database, information systems can determine instantly whether further inspection or verification of credentials is warranted. If so, the driver is signaled to stop. Otherwise, he is notified to proceed. Similarly, many states use RFID-based transponders on vehicles to capture billing information as they pass through a toll lane.

In the past, a major drawback of government systems that use roadside readers was that regional and nationwide motor carriers needed to maintain multiple transponders – one transponder for E-ZPass toll roads in the East Coast; one for Fast Track tolls along the West Coast; and another to bypass weigh stations in the PrePass and Norpass systems, for example.

The incompatibility of transponders among different jurisdictions is due in part to a lack of technology standards, says Paul Manuel of Mark IV Industries, a company that manufactures transponders. Weigh stations, toll roads and other roadside readers use one of four different protocols in the 915 MHz frequency range for communicating with transponders, says Manuel, Mark IV’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Competition also was and continues to be a significant roadblock for limiting the number of transponders carriers use. Some states use tax dollars to fund toll roads and weigh station bypass systems, but other states are part of public-private partnerships such as Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate (HELP) Inc., which controls access to the PrePass system thousands of truckers use for weigh station bypass.

The technical issues became less of a factor in 2003 when Mark IV developed the Fusion transponder, which can communicate with all four protocols used in the 915 MHz range, Manuel says. Fleets that use a Fusion transponder simply can register the transponder with PrePass and other state programs for weigh stations and toll roads.

“The tag only operates in one protocol at a time and automatically works out any issues,” Manuel says.

State-to-state consortiums, such as the E-ZPass Inter Agency Group (IAG), also play a key role in helping carriers leverage RFID technology. States that join the IAG agree to accept all valid electronic-toll transponders affiliated with the E-ZPass system, allowing an E-ZPass transponder issued by one state to be valid in any other member state. By virtue of the IAG, a fleet receives one bill from its home state for all E-ZPass tolls its drivers use. ACS manages the administration of E-ZPass for several states and the PrePass program for HELP Inc. In states that belong to the E-ZPass IAG, fleets can use the Fusion transponder and a program called PrePass Plus to consolidate billing for tolls and weigh stations, says Kara Gerhart Ross, ACS spokesperson.

KLLM once used separate transponders for E-ZPass toll roads in the Northeast and for weigh stations. The 1,500-truck carrier based in Jackson, Miss., now uses PrePass Plus, and having one transponder in each truck has simplified expense accounting. “Now we get one bill,” says Bonnie Rester, KLLM’s permit department manager.

But coast-to-coast and international interoperability continues to be a work in progress. A PrePass Plus customer also must use a separate transponder or driver card to use Fast Track toll roads in the West Coast, SunPass in Florida and many other toll roads in the United States, Gerhart Ross says.

Keller Trucking – a 60-truck fleet based in Defiance, Ohio – uses PrePass Plus but also must use another transponder for its cross-border operations into Canada. Keller uses a paper-thin windshield sticker tag called eGo from TransCore that was issued by the Department of Homeland Security, says Melissa Turner, the carrier’s accounting supervisor. (For more information on the technology used in crossing the border, see “Borderline Frenzy,” CCJ, December 2004.)

Tracking terminal operations
On the road, RFID remains a loose collection of unrelated applications. When used at local facilities, however, RFID can be a highly reliable, cost-effective system to identify vehicles and capture information at critical moments, such as when a vehicle moves freight in and out of gates and docks. FedEx Freight, for example, uses RFID tags on its tractors and trailers and readers located at gates and dock doors, Aaholm says.

Through integration of RFID into its operations system, FedEx Freight automatically receives freight into its system as a trailer arrives at the gate. It knows what products are on the trailer and which shipments and what customers the products are intended, eliminating the need for a dock worker to scan a bill of lading manually when the truck arrives.

“We do a mass receive,” Aaholm says. “When they leave, we do a mass trailer outbound transaction.”

Management of shipments isn’t the only application of RFID in a localized area. RFID also is being used for access control at ocean port terminals. For example, P&O Ports of North America – one of the largest independent stevedore and terminal operators in the United States – recently began an RFID project at its Port of New Orleans’ Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal.

The terminal requires trucks that haul containers into and out of its facilities to have a TransCore eGo sticker tag on windshields, says Mark Manuel, director of information technology for P&O Ports’ Gulf operations. As a truck approaches the gate, it is identified and granted or denied access depending on whether or not its arrival was confirmed previously. Using a website, fleet dispatchers schedule appointments and manage accounts. Prior to RFID, if a truck showed up with paper in hand and anything was wrong, the driver usually was forced to send a series of faxes and make several telephone calls to his dispatcher.

“The trucker would sit a long time for things to be worked out,” Manuel says. “Now, the dispatcher gets his confirmation worked out before the truck gets to the terminal.”

The terminal uses RFID to track a vehicle as it moves through the yard from one station to the next. P&O Ports also matches up each tag number automatically to transactions that take place in the terminal, such as weight measurements and container and chassis inspections. Clerks in the terminal see a visual display of traffic in the port on their computer screens and communicate with truckers throughout the port via an AM channel.

“The clerk automatically knows who they are talking to, as their screen is populated with all the information about the vehicle,” Manuel says.

Managing equipment
Another type of internal use of RFID technology is to automate capture of vehicle operation and maintenance information, such as mileage, fuel consumption and tires.

The City of Cape Coral, Fla., uses an RFID-based fuel management system for its entire fleet of 1,265 vehicles. The system, SmartFuel by SCI International, uses tiny radio signal transmitters fastened to a vehicle’s gas tank and fuel pump to ensure that fuel will flow only when the correct driver inserts the correct fuel nozzle into the correct tank.

When fueling, drivers input their PIN number and vehicle mileage. The system automatically records the location, date, time and amount of fuel dispensed, enabling managers to run individual reports on vehicles and drivers, or by section and department.

“Before, we used a credit card system where we got statements from the vendor that had mileages and all that,” says Fred DeBono, the city’s fleet/warehouse manager. “It wasn’t as accurate as what we are doing now. This is a real-time transaction.” The system also flags a transaction for managers to investigate should a driver enter the incorrect vehicle mileage.

Fleets also can use RFID to manage tire costs and maintenance. In 2003 Michelin Tires developed its eTire program that uses a small sensor inside the tire and either a handheld or drive-by reader to track air pressure and temperature of each tire. With the drive-by configuration, trucks pass by at 5 mph and the system quickly captures information on all tires, making daily tire management part of a fleet’s operation, says Nate Leehman, tire electronics platform manager for Michelin.

Information captured by eTire readers is sent to an online tire management system called BibTracks, which can generate customized reports for fleet managers, such as what tires in the yard need to be inflated each day. Users also can track a tire’s lifecycle costs through retread.

Stemco, a manufacturer of wheel systems, recently announced the introduction of Bat RF, which uses RFID to communicate tire pressure information and vehicle mileage through a handheld scanner, which syncs with a computer for data downloads. The Hand Bat reader can read RF data at a range of three to five feet and can store up to 400 records before synching. Stemco also is developing a gate reader to speed the reading of data.

The tire pressure and hub mileage elements of the Bat RF system can be purchased separately. Fleet managers can use software provided by Stemco to manage the data and facilitate its integration with the operation’s information systems.

The potential for RFID in fleet applications seems endless. The momentum from Wal-Mart may seem to apply only to product-level tracking, but the costs of RFID continue to drop as competition enters the market for systems that carriers actually use, says Mark Mitchell, transportation practice director for Enterprise Information Solutions, a software consulting and development firm.

“The focus, research and development that are coming from the Wal-Mart RFID mandate have had a positive impact on the technologies carriers use,” he says. “Tags and readers are becoming more powerful, functional and cost-effective.”

Testing the limits
Fleet owners help evaluate and deploy RFID technologies

When the topic of radio frequency identification (RFID) is discussed at industry trade shows and conferences, two names you always will hear are Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense. Both entities already have deployed working models for RFID to track items as they move throughout distribution channels. While carriers and their needs aren’t central to these initiatives, transportation and logistics providers are helping to define the scope of RFID in the supply chain.

Ryder System Inc. last month announced the opening of an RFID technology test lab in its 192,000-square-foot, multi-client facility in Dallas/Fort Worth. The lab is located in a warehouse/distribution center where products are received, stored, inventoried, picked and shipped to meet the operational requirements of a diverse group of customers. Ryder will use the lab to test RFID vendor hardware and software, tag placement configuration on products, package design and the integration of RFID to warehouse management systems and transportation management systems to determine gained supply chain efficiencies for customers.

“We realize the potential impact RFID will have on supply chain management, and this lab provides the right environment to design, develop, test and implement customer solutions for the emerging RFID marketplace,” said Tony Tegnelia, Ryder’s executive vice president of U.S. Supply Chain Solutions. Ryder initially is collaborating with CMAC, Shipcom Wireless and Zebra to provide RFID testing.

Another company that is helping find some answers is Transport Industries, a Mesquite, Texas-based carrier that has worked closely with Wal-Mart and an RFID deployment center privately funded by SIS Technologies and Distribution Center Logistics. The deployment facility was established to help logistics companies meet mandates from Dallas-area customers, including Wal-Mart, says Doug Cheney, president of Distribution Center Logistics.

Capabilities of the 150,000-square-foot facility include product and pallet tagging, cross docking and consolidation services. Transport Industries – with more than 1,600 trucks delivering groceries to Wal-Mart distribution centers – examined various ways it could contribute to the deployment center. One possibility was to have RFID readers installed in Transport Industries’ trailers: The readers could capture how much freight was loaded onto and unloaded from the truck. The company could find the difference and send a confirmation to the shipper through its Qualcomm satellite network.

“Our initial thinking was that we could settle load and count issues right there, but frankly I don’t see that’s going to happen,” says Mike Voelk, Transport Industries’ director of information technology. “There are so many other issues that need to be tackled first before we get to that point.”

After seeing the results from tests on the scanning of tagged items from trailers at dock doors, Voelk is skeptical of whether or not RFID can be used to automate load counts. The success rate of scanning varies broadly based on the skew and skew mix. If you tag a cardboard box of frozen noodles with aluminum cans next to it, for example, the cans block the signal, he says.

“Where we’re really sensitive is if RFID is being used as a replacement for load counts,” he says, since inaccuracies in scanning can lead to delays. “We’re sensitive for any kind of impact on trucking efficiencies. Clearly, we want to make sure that if there is a scheme in which RFID is implemented in a broad sense that it factors in trucking efficiency.”

Active or passive?
RFID tags differ according to purpose

Today, most of the attention focused on radio frequency identification (RFID) is on the “passive” form of this technology, as opposed to “active” systems.

Both passive and active RFID systems consist of three components: tags, readers and computer software. Tags – the small labels or devices affixed to individual items such as clothing, pallets, trucks and trailers – contain a small computer chip, a capacitor and an antenna. Using radio waves, readers capture and transmit data from the tags into a computer system when the tags are within range.

The similarity between passive and active systems ends here.

Passive RFID systems use readers that retrieve data from tags by emitting a radio pulse. The tag absorbs enough energy from the reader to reflect a signal back to the reader. By contrast, active RFID uses internal batteries to power the tag and its radio communication circuitry.

Passive tags can be paper-thin and much smaller than a dime – and cost about as much, thanks to increased demand and competition driven by Wal-Mart’s RFID initiative for tracking individual cases and pallets through its global distribution network. Passive RFID systems also are used for many more applications, including employee ID badges and simple vehicle identification where vehicles stop or slow substantially at a reader.

Passive RFID requires very strong signals from the reader, and the signal strength returned from the tag is constrained to very low levels by the limited energy. The typical range between passive tags and readers is three to four feet. One exception, however, is the TransCore eGo sticker tag used for roadside vehicle identification, which can be read at speeds up to 100 mph.

By contrast, active RFID allows tags to receive very low-level signals because they don’t have to be powered by the reader. The tag also can generate high-level signals back to the reader, allowing it to be read at high speeds and distances of 100 feet or more. Active RFID tags, because of their internal power source, are significantly more expensive and larger than passive tags. Examples of active RFID systems include PrePass for weigh station bypass and toll collection, and automated gate readers for tracking equipment.

Technology is available for both active and passive RFID to store and rewrite data within the tag. Because of power limitations, passive RFID only provides a small amount of read/write data storage (typically 128 bytes or less). For larger data capabilities, active RFID must be powered for longer periods of time with 128K bytes of memory – 1,000 times as much.