Staying on Track

Sept. 1, 2001
With more than an estimated 100 million reusable containers moving around North America, keeping tabs on these assets has become a major task and a major business.

Staying on Track

With more than an estimated 100 million reusable containers moving around North America, keeping tabs on these assets has become a major task and a major business.

by Clyde E. Witt, editor

Movin’, movin’, movin’ is more than a mantra in the world of logistics. And while speed is at the heart of virtually all supply chain programs, keeping track of what goes where is critical to success. Automatic data collection provides total asset visibility through inventory and container tracking.

Bar coding has been, and continues to be, the method of choice for inventory tracking. Radio frequency, however, is gaining popularity as the cost of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags continues to drop. Attaching RFID tags, or using a global positioning system (GPS), gives logistics managers full knowledge of what is in a container and where in the world that container might be.

The Intellitag Reusable Plastic Container tag from Intermec Technologies is specifically designed to be mounted on a returnable container. It allows companies to track the location and contents of bulk packaging throughout the supply chain. The tag operates at 915 MHz (UHF) frequency band, with a single-antenna range of up to four meters.

“In distribution center environments,” says Winston Guillory, vice president of Intermec’s Intellitag business group, “our signal range translates to accurate scanning anywhere within a standard industrial doorway or portal.”

Intellitag’s system uses tiny computer chips and miniature antennas (smaller and lighter than a postage stamp), along with readers known as interrogators. The technology allows companies to track goods, containers and vehicles in real time. Intellitag RFID can read and update information on many tags at once, rather than one at a time, using low-power wireless signals that don’t need line of sight like laser scanners. Intellitag tags read as much as 40 times faster than conventional bar codes.

A different approach

“Bar code technology and radio frequency identification, if used in combination, can optimize efficiency at the lowest possible cost,” says Jerry Backus, vice president, supply chain technology, Hoover Materials Handling Group.

According to Backus, only about half the companies in a recent survey put bar coding into their business plans and about 17 percent were using RFID for tracking. The speed and accuracy of scanning bar codes or, in high-volume operations, RFID tags, can improve productivity many times over.

A new technology from Hoover, Internet Tracking Resource and Asset Management (iTRAM), enables companies to track returnable packaging throughout manufacturing, storage, distribution and recovery. The Web-based program uses the Internet, through which users can access Hoover’s software and communications systems.

One application of the system is to track reusable containers for automotive parts as they move through distribution. Hoover is working with Genei Industries, a third-party service provider in the automotive industry, to track the production and movement of steering columns and improve Genei’s service.

The difference in this program from others is that iTRAM will track the container, not just the parts as is done with other programs. By tracking both parts and containers as a unit, Genei’s customers will have vital information throughout the shipping life of the product. With time, those customers can build a history of how long it takes to move products along the supply chain.

Tracking products and containers in warehouses often involves scanning bar codes or RFID tags over long distances. The ultra-high-frequency Tag-it UHF Transponder and Reader system from Texas Instruments overcomes this distance challenge. Incoming and outgoing cartons, pallets and returnable containers equipped with Tag-it responders can be automatically identified from stationary antennas that cover typical 10-foot-wide warehouse loading docks. In addition to the increased read range, the system enables simultaneous identification of multiple tags in the field, and, unlike bar codes, typically does not require line of sight to be read. The Tag-it reader can accurately and reliably differentiate 50 or more cartons on a pallet passing through the system at the same time.

The one-time programmable Tag-it transponder contains 1,024 bits of memory including a 48-bit serial number. Users can add information to available memory blocks as the transponder travels through the supply chain. ADF

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