Inside RF/ID: Carving A Niche Beyond Asset Tracking
Systems integrator SPEC designs innovative RF/ID solutions beyond asset tracking for food processing plant and heavy-equipment dealer.
Radio frequency identification (RF/ID) is a hot topic in today's automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) industry. And, many VARs and integrators are stepping up to the plate to take advantage of this technology. Beyond traditional asset-tracking applications, Systems & Processes Engineering Corp. (SPEC), a systems integrator (Austin, TX) with a projected $10 million in sales for 1998, is a step ahead of the mainstream RF/ID push. Going beyond traditional asset-tracking applications, SPEC adds sensors to RF/ID tags to gather specific information on end-user needs about a product or piece of equipment. Because of its technological advancement company-wide, SPEC has grown by an average of 50% each year for the past three years.
The RF/ID Basics
RF/ID is similar to bar-code technology in that both use special readers and tags or cards attached to an object. The difference is that RF/ID technology allows data collection without sight of or contact with a tagged item. RF/ID uses low-power radio waves or signals which travel easily through non-metallic materials and don't have to be in direct contact with the device to read the signal. In the simplest terms, the RF/ID system communicates data by radio.
A basic RF/ID system has three components:
- an antenna or coil,
- a transceiver with a decoder and
- an RF/ID tag, also called a transponder, which is electronically programmed with specific information.
Transceivers with strategically placed antennas emit radio signals to activate RF/ID tags. The transceivers can read data from the tag, write data to the tag, or both. Antennas are the link between tags and transceivers, converting between radio waves and electrical signals. The transceivers control the system data acquisition and communication. Often, antennas are packaged with the transceiver and decoder to become an interrogator, also known as a reader. The interrogator can be configured as a handheld or fixed-mount device.
Interrogators emit radio waves with an effective range of anywhere from one inch to 100 feet or more, depending on the unit's power output and the radio frequency used. When an RF/ID tag passes through the interrogation zone, it detects the RF activation signal, causing the tag to transmit its data. The interrogator insert receives and then decodes the data. Finally, data is passed to the host computer for processing.
According to the Automatic Identification Manufacturers (AIM) trade association, RF/ID is commonly used for: security access, anti-theft retail systems, asset and inventory tracking, automatic toll collection and wildlife and livestock tracking. It is also used for house-arrest monitoring systems, manufacturing work-in-progress data and shipping, air cargo and railroad car tracking. The U.S. Department of Defense has invested heavily in RF/ID technology for logistics purposes. The tags were used as manifests on intermodal containers during military actions in Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia.
RF/ID tags come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Tags can be as small as the diameter of pencil lead and one-half inch in length for animal tracking, inserted beneath the skin. They can also be as large as eight inches for tags with batteries and internal memory.
Adding Value To RF/ID
SPEC takes RF/ID a step further. "We increase value in basic RF technology by adding sensors to RF tags," says Byron Zollars, Ph.D., SPEC's vice president of systems technology. SPEC attaches a low-power microprocessor to a digital port on the Micron Communications Corp. RF/ID tag integrated circuit (IC). "This low-power processor provides digital and analog inputs," says Zollars.
"We also add signal conditioning components. This lets us take a measurement from a sensor, amplify and transform it to the proper range for the analog digital converter. Where it's appropriate, SPEC can add temperature sensors, humidity sensors, additional memory, a time-of-day clock and miscellaneous inputs for counting or measuring time, shock and vibration."
"The microprocessor gives us a flexible interface to measure specific things in the outside world," Zollars explains. "SPEC's electronics provide the gateway from the sensor to the Micron RF/ID IC. We use that IC like a radio. Information gathered from sensors is sent over the RF link that the IC provides. Finally, SPEC software decodes data and presents it in a form the customer can use."
SPEC uses its RF/ID technology in very diverse applications. In each case, the sensors attached to the microprocessor collect data from the outside world so each tag provides more information than just a simple identification number.
Efficiently Tracking Equipment
SPEC's enhanced RF/ID system is in place at heavy equipment yard in Idaho, helping the company automate its equipment rental process. The company wanted to accurately and automatically track equipment entering or exiting the yard to streamline its operations. "They were handling a lot of rental invoices and it was hard to track the equipment," says Zollars. "Our job was to automate the process."
SPEC installed interrogators in a portal-type configuration at both entry gates. "The portals also have photoelectric cells," he explains, "so they know when trucks enter or leave the facility from either gate. When the system detects movement, it turns on the interrogator and collects information from any tag moving through the gate, as well as whether the equipment is moving in or out of the site."
Lower-value items like scissor lifts or air compressors are tagged with a regular, but durable, RF/ID tag. "When the equipment moves in and out of the portal," he describes, "The heavy equipment yard knows exactly what equipment was taken, when it left and if it was on a trailer, because of the special RF/ID tags. Special RF/ID tags are placed on all trailers, trucks and equipment. When the equipment is returned, the rental yard knows what time it arrived and how much to charge for the rental."
A SPEC StatusCard™ is put on the higher-value equipment. Each StatusCard is an RF/ID tag containing a processor and a number of analog and digital inputs. These digital and analog inputs can be hooked up to wiring in the equipment. This allows the company to measure information like fuel levels by connecting to wiring that runs fuel gauges, says Zollars.
When the equipment comes back into the yard, typically, it's trucked in on a trailer. As it passes through the gates, it trips the photocell, which turns on the interrogator. The interrogator starts looking for tags on the trailer and truck. When the interrogator sees the equipment is equipped with a StatusCard, it takes the sensor information. It reads pertinent information like the fuel level, number of hours that the equipment has been in use and temperature.
The interrogator sends the collected information to a system controller where SPEC software formats the digital information into a form that the rental yard can use. The system controller then passes the information to the mainframe on an AS/400 computer. "Trucks can go through the gates at up to 35 miles per hour," says Zollars. "If the gate is open, the driver doesn't need to slow down for the tags to be read."
SPEC recently completed an RF/ID demo at a food processing plant. The Colorado-based company has been looking for a way to monitor the temperature of beef as it travels through the processing plant. Carcasses are put through several wash steps after slaughter, and temperatures must be exact to discourage bacteria growth. For its demonstration, SPEC worked with TAVA Technologies, a Denver AIDC VAR, to provide a reliable RF/ID solution fit for the harsh environment of a processing plant.
"The meat processing company wants to know the temperature the surface of the beef is exposed to during the wash process," explains Zollars. Before the side of beef goes through the washer step, a SPEC TempCard is attached to a metal spike and stuck in the beef, which hangs from a hook on a conveyor belt.
Right before the beef goes through the first wash cycle, it passes by an interrogator, which activates the TempCard and tells it to take temperature measurements. At the end of the washing step, another interrogator tells the TempCard to stop recording temperatures and relay the collected data, along with the beef's ID number, which was also encoded in the tag. At the same time, the interrogator can program the tag to take temperature measurements every five minutes as the beef cools.
When the processing plant is ready to do something with the meat, an employee can scan the tag and tell if the carcass was ever warm enough to grow bacteria. "It ensures the beef was never exposed to temperatures that would cause its contamination to come into question," says Zollars.
The company's previous method involved periodically putting a cardboard temperature indicator through the same process. An employee retrieved the temperature indicator and wrote down the temperatures at each step. "The processing plant was gathering incomplete data," explains Zollars, "because the measurements were only taken periodically, and the system was subject to human errors as employees wrote down the numbers. In addition, the cardboard cards were often blown around by the washing process, so I am not sure how accurate they were."
Advice For VARs In The Industry
"It's a multi-step pitch getting customers to commit to RF/ID," says Zollars. "VARs or systems integrators need to be convincing when they try to get customers to spend their hard-earned cash."
SPEC's first step is to have the customer sit down with a systems engineer or technical representative to discuss the customer's problem and the possible solution. Second, SPEC presents the solution to the customer with a technology created in-house, obtained from a vendor or a combination of both. "If the customer agrees with that solution," says Zollars, "our next step is to do some low-cost demonstration funded by the customer. If they like the solution and believe in the estimated return on investment (ROI), they will commit to the full system."
Zollars says the first meeting and subsequent interchange and follow-up are key for SPEC. "Customers notice how quickly we get back to them with a solution," he says. "If we conclusively show that our company has the ability, know-how and experience to solve problems, the customers will almost always go with the demo. At that point, they have already invested time looking for a solutions provider. It's an inconvenience to do additional shopping for a solution to their problem."
Capitalizing On Success
SPEC uses its corporate partners, Web site, trade shows and direct sales calls to generate customers. But, a significant amount of business comes through word-of-mouth, says Zollars. "You wouldn't think that would be true in this day and age," he says, "but we have an extensive business network through our employees and the other business areas within SPEC."
Opportunities also grow through successful operations, says Zollars. "The best way for potential customers to learn about our products is through our successful installations. We put our success stories on our Web site and provide copies to our corporate partners so they are aware of successful installations involving their products."