Transport Packaging: A Practical, Reusable Application for RFID

July 1, 2006
If RFID tags can withstand the rigors of use, doesn’t it make sense that the enabler of this technology should be the reusable container?

A major break in resolving the challenge of returning reusable containers is about to happen. An initiative to marry reusables and RFID tags has gone beyond the flirting and courting stages. Now we're waiting for the preacher to show up.

The Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC, Washington, D.C.) is launching (this month if all the contracts are signed, sealed and delivered) an initiative to establish the business case for RFID multi-use tags and reusable containers. This coalition consists of 26 corporate members. It advocates the use of reusable pallets and containers, regardless of what material they're made of.

A primary goal of this study will be to determine how deep into the supply chain containers and pallets can be tracked. I know this kind of work is being undertaken by private firms, however this is first time an association has taken on some heavy lifting rather than being the educational conduit for someone else's work.

A number of things about this program are unique, not the least of which is that it shows by working together for a greater good—even among competitors—benefits can accrue to all.

RPCC and others have done studies to show how reusables can reduce the flow of material headed for the landfill by as much as 95%. Why pay twice (or, over and over) for something you've already paid for? That is, in part, the thinking behind this study for RFID tag usage. "If RFID tags can withstand the rigors of use," says Jeanie Johnson, spokesperson for RPCC, "doesn't it make sense that the enabler of this technology should be the reusable container?"

Tags, like containers, can be reused. The disposal of RF tags on expendable containers is a growing issue that has not escaped the scrutiny of environmentalists, at least in Europe. Here in the United States we're slow to catch on to waste problems as long as we can still see a place to dig a hole and toss something in. But RF tags only add to the growing disposal problem of electronic devices.

Reusables just make good cents, as Johnson says. "We're [the association] taking this leadership role in investigating the use of RFID and reusables to be a catalyst for end-users; to show them there are packaging options."

Johnson says the project will consist of three phases. The first phase will be an investigation by academics to study and establish tag readability and performance metrics. RPCC will be looking at tags rugged enough to survive the rigors of the produce industry, arguably the most destructive environment for pallets and containers.

"The second phase," she explains, "will be the creation of an economic model, based on results of the tag testing and performance metrics."

The model will be a comparison of one-way, expendable packaging material and tags versus multi-use tags and reusable containers. That will be the economic, or "goto-market" approach, as Johnson calls it.

If the first two phases of the program prove the viability of the approach— Johnson says the association is going to keep an open mind, if it fails it fails—the program will move on to phase three. The final phase will consist of thousands of containers in the field under real working conditions. "We've had a lot of interest in this project already," she says, "and major retailers and produce companies are willing to help."

To keep the study vendor-and material- neutral, the association will be contracting with a third-party management firm to administer the test program. It will be using EPCglobal-compliant tags that meet the Generation2 standards.

Stay tuned. Containers and tags are reusable—and so is this story.

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