Using RF/ID To Track Recyclable Containers
IPI Europe uses RF/ID to help a U.K. company keep up with increasing environmental laws.
Tracking Pesticide Containers
The new environmental laws required replacing disposable five-litre pesticide and chemical containers with 30- to 50-litre containers. The containers can be reused for up to five years, but new environmental laws also strictly prohibit manufacturers from refilling containers with different substances. Therefore, the tracking system had to be able to tell Cyanamid the product name, filling date and delivery destination of thousands of containers throughout production, distribution and recycling channels.
IPI Europe used an RF/ID system containing Texas Instruments Registration and Identification System (Tiris) RF tags and readers and IPI Europe's own Tagtech software. The system offers many advantages over alternative tracking systems, such as bar codes. For example, according to Mark Perryman, IPI Europe's managing director, tags can be read in any position and orientation, are unobtrusive to avoid tampering, and are rugged enough to withstand the arduous agricultural environment. "The transponders are designed to have a lifetime at least as long as the container itself," he says. "The transponders could be run over by a tractor without being damaged."
What exactly is RF/ID?
RF/ID systems consist of an antenna or coil, a transceiver with a decoder and a transponder, typically called an RF tag. The RF tag is electronically programmed with application-specific information. The antenna acts as a link between the tag and the transceiver. Often, the antenna is packaged with the transceiver and decoder to become a reader -- also known as an interrogator. Interrogators can be handheld or fixed-mount devices.
The antenna produces an electromagnetic field that can be kept on or turned on and off by sensor tags, used in conjunction with RF tags. When an RF tag passes through the electromagnetic zone, it detects the reader's activation signal. The reader decodes the data encoded in the tag's integrated circuit, and passes that information to the host computer for processing. The information can be used for a wide variety of inventory management or other identification applications through a central database. Unlike bar codes, RF tags do not need to be seen by the readers to gather information.
"Bar codes traditionally perform well in clean-environment applications," says Perryman. "The technology adopted for containers has to function in environments that contain dirt, dust, moisture, poor visibility and extreme temperatures."
The transponder is mounted into the container's upper rim and the antenna and reader are installed above a roller conveyor at two Cyanamid production facilities in France. The reader communicates with a computer that encodes the tags with details such as product name, filling date and delivery destination. Canisters damaged in the field are taken out of circulation, and new product is only put into containers that have been approved for production. The PC also operates a central database through which the movements of individual containers can be tracked.
Data on the tag can be written or updated through the read/write transponders as the container goes through distribution and back to the plant. Selected information, such as the ID number and date of first use can be locked to prevent the identity or selected data from being written over. The tags also provide a mobile database that can be accessed throughout its life. When a container that has been in use for more than five years is detected, it is automatically removed from the packaging stream.
"We had no competition for this project," explains Perryman. "Cyanamid representatives visited our site twice for system testing and training. Software development took three months and installation took two weeks with minimal training. The most challenging aspect was developing the software to run on existing, intrinsically safe readers."
Right now, there are 35,000 RF tags in use by Cyanamid in Germany and the U.K. Plans are already in hand to extend this application elsewhere in Europe. In order to facilitate this expansion, Cyanamid envisions extending the tracking system across its distribution network, using handheld readers and a distributed database. IPI is also excited about the possibility of using the system to manage container deposits.