Where Can You Sell RFID?
This VAR partnered with its vendor to leverage their automation and RFID (radio frequency identification) expertise to develop an RFID solution for a fuel automation solutions provider to the trucking industry.
Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart's suppliers - those are the buzzwords around RFID (radio frequency identification), as you're well aware. But you may not be aware of the less high-profile applications that are filtering into the supply chain. The transportation vertical provides at least one good example.
In the trucking industry, large fleets of trucks (Yellow, Penske, etc.) are stationed throughout the country. Fleet refueling companies drive fuel trucks to sites around the country to provide fuel to fleets as contracted by a trucking company. Fuel-All (Irvine, CA), a national automated solutions provider, has a system that enables a fuel truck driver to identify the truck to be fueled on a handheld computer and input the type and gallons of fuel pumped. That data is downloaded to the fleet refueling company's system to generate invoices. Fuel-All's solution used a tethered antenna on the trucks that communicates with the handheld computers. The system was sensitive and required too much time to verify and operate. Fuel-All saw RFID technology as an opportunity to add efficiencies to the process and differentiate itself from its competitors.
Fuel-All contacted RFID vendor RFID, Inc. (Aurora, CO) through the vendor's Web site. RFID, Inc. recommended automation solutions provider Electro-Matic Products (Farmington Hills, MI), which has experience in providing RFID solutions in manufacturing facilities like steel and paper mills.
What Does Your Customer Want Out Of RFID?
When Dave Welch, sales engineer at Electro-Matic, took the job, his first order of business was to meet with the customer and see what functionalities Fuel-All wanted. "I'd had experience in RFID, but this was a unique application," he says. Fuel-All wanted to place an RFID tag on or near a truck's fuel tank, then use a handheld computer with an integrated RFID reader to read the tag. An internal wireless LAN card in the device would receive information, including the truck number, the gallons pumped, and type of fuel. When Welch took that information back to the vendor, the two realized that process was still unwieldy. "It would be more beneficial to the customer to provide a single-piece solution for the driver to carry," says James Heurich, president of RFID, Inc.
Electro-Matic and RFID, Inc. integrated a 1-inch by 2-inch 3020 MicroReader into a handheld computer from DAP Technologies (Mississauga, Ontario). Fuel-All used this solution for a few months, but expressed a wish to keep the handheld in the truck, to further ease the driver's fueling job. "These drivers are sometimes heavily clothed, in wind and rain, and they are trying to open a gas tank, insert a hose, and pump the fuel. It wasn't an unfounded request," says Welch. Electro-Matic and RFID, Inc. again put their heads together and created a wireless wand reader (3037E-WL) for the driver to carry, which could communicate with the computer in his truck. The RFID tag on each truck to be fueled is read by the reader on the refueling truck, and once the computer validates the truck and the type of fuel to go in it, the wand vibrates. At the end of every shift, the data is downloaded by placing the handheld in a cradle. Fuel-All sends the information to the fueling company's system and generates invoices for the fueling company to send the trucking companies.
Overcome Challenges Of RFID Read Range
With the final RFID solution in place, Electro-Matic and RFID, Inc. continued to monitor the success of the installation. Though the 3037E-WL wand reader showed a range of 150 feet in testing environments, Fuel-All found that the range wasn't there in non-line-of-sight environments. And since drivers were often walking between trucks as they refueled, that was a problem. Electro-Matic upgraded the wand units to include a wireless chip that operates at a distance of eight miles, providing a strong enough read range to cancel the non-line-of-sight issues.
By the end of the year, more than 500 units will have been installed in the field, at $1,000 each, along with more than 100,000 $1 to $2 RFID tags. So despite the three upgrades and ongoing troubleshooting, a $650,000 installation is a good reason to walk down the RFID road.