Radio-frequency tags have become a must for the nation’s rail operations. Now, motor carriers are discovering plenty of uses for tags both on the road and in the yard.
A few years ago, radio-frequency (RF) tags or transponders were used only in the rail industry and then, only as a means of tracking rail-cars. Today, however, tags have begun to catch on in the trucking industry, where private fleets and for-hire carriers alike are testing tags to speed up highway inspections and customs clearance and to identify equipment and loads.
Although only a few companies are experimenting with these devices right now, many industry experts believe tags will soon see widespread use. In the near future, they predict, tags will become as commonplace as bar codes when it comes to automatic-identification equipment used in distribution. “This technology is going to [revolutionize] the way some people manage their fleets,” predicts Jim Mathis, a vice president of engineering at trucking software maker Industrial Computer Systems in Evergreen, Colo.
Tale of the Tag
What is an RF tag? Basically, the tag consists of an antenna and microcircuit for data storage. The antenna can transmit the stored information – such as a trailer ID – via radio waves to a reader. Because radio waves are used, a tag reader does not require a direct line of sight to capture and decode information stored on the device.
The tags themselves come in two basic types – passive or active. Passive tags rely on energy from the reader to initiate communication. Active tags, on the other hand, use internal power to send signals to the reader.
Until recently, RF tags could only transmit data to a reader over a short range – often no more than 10 feet. Newer tags have ranges up to 300 feet. Similarly, whereas earlier versions had limited memory for data storage, tags today can have as much as 500 kilobytes of memory, depending on the model. Even with memory and range improvements, tags remain expensive. A top-of-the-line active tag today runs $50 or higher. Tag readers can cost as much as $15,000 apiece.
Despite those drawbacks, the market for radio-frequency identification equipment has grown in recent years. A 1996 Frost and Sullivan report estimated that 1995 revenues for radio-frequency identification device (RFID) technology reached $138.1 million. In part, the steady growth can be attributed to the use of tags to enable electronic toll collection. Vehicles equipped with tags can speed past readers on toll roads, expediting traffic flow while still allowing authorities to collect user fees.
In the area of commercial transportation, RFID technology was first used in the rail industry. Transmission range isn’t an issue there because readers can be placed alongside the train track in close proximity to passing railcars. As cars speed by, the readers capture information from the tag, noting the time, car location, and direction of travel. In fact, this technology provides the basis for car-location messages used by shippers to track freight.
Right now, some 3.5 million tags made by Dallas-based Amtech are deployed in the rail and intermodal industry. Truck-related applications are forthcoming, an Amtech spokesman says. The company has just begun testing a tag for use as part of a preventative-maintenance program. The new “odometer and identification” tag will relay the time, date, and vehicle’s odometer reading to a host computer. This information then can be used to initiate maintenance at specified mileage intervals.
Beside using tags to keep maintenance records, a number of companies are developing tags to help manage tractors and trailers at a terminal yard. A Virginia-based company, Randtec Inc., has developed a tag with a 128,000-byte memory and a general reading range of 300 feet. Food distributor Atlantic Food Services Inc. in Manassas, Va., worked with Randtec this spring to test the product for yard management. A dozen of Atlantic Food’s trailers were outfitted with Randtec tags and a sensor was installed at the yard gate and on dock doors at the food distributor’s warehouse.
If the sensors do their job of reading the trailer tags, the company will be able to note automatically which trailers arrive or depart from its yard and when they do so. “Our trailer-to-tractor ratio is real tight,” explains David Bunk, transportation manager for Atlantic Food. “The technology allows us to know what trailers are coming in and at what time of day. We can keep a tighter rein on the fleet than someone walking around with a clipboard and piece of paper.”
Savi Technology Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is likewise developing a tag for truck-fleet yard management. Slated for rollout later this year is a system that creates an electronic record to monitor the movements of tractors, trailers, and even dollies. The tags used in the yard-management system have a range of up to six feet and a memory of 12 bytes.
Skipping the Scales
One of the most innovative applications of tags in the trucking industry is taking place in the western United States. Here, trucks are using tags to bypass weigh stations, where state officials normally stop vehicles to check for compliance with highway regulations. In California, where the program got under way in June 1995, state officials certify trucking companies for participation in the “PrePass” clearance system based on the carrier’s safety record. Once they are equipped with RF tags for vehicle identification, trucks in the program can skip highway weigh stations altogether.
The program, which is operated by a non-profit corporation called Help Inc. based in Phoenix, Ariz., uses transponders and readers manufactured by Hughes Transportation Management Systems in Fullerton, Calif. The Hughes tags have a range that extends up to 300 feet. A computer database developed by Lockheed Martin correlates the individual tag ID information to a specific truck and company.
At the moment, Help Inc. buys the transponders from Hughes and issues them free to participating motor carriers. It then collects a 99-cent fee each time a truck bypasses a weigh station. Walt Keeney, president of the motor carrier Food Express Inc. in Arcadia, Calif., says the time savings justify the cost. “A long-haul driver can only drive 10 hours a day [under federal driving rules],” says Keeney. “If a driver doesn’t have to stop at weigh stations [during the work day], you’ve just [saved] 40 or 50 minutes.”
The PrePass program is quickly expanding beyond California. The program now is under way in New Mexico and Wyoming, and Arizona will offer the program at certain sites later this year.
Eliminating Border Lines
In addition to their role at the weigh station, tags soon could play a major role in expediting the movement of freight across U.S. borders. A number of federal agencies, including the Treasury Department and Department of Transportation, are experimenting with tags to facilitate pre-clearance of cargo at the Mexican and Canadian boundaries. Officials are using Hughes tags for tests on the Mexican border and a transponder made by Mark IV Industries Inc. for tests on the Canadian border.
Similar in concept to the weigh-station bypass program, pre-clearance will allow selected trucks to sail through customs checkpoints. Trucks in the program will be equipped with a transponder that contains a vehicle identification number. When the truck approaches a border-crossing point, a reader will detect its ID and transmit that identification to a computer system that already has received Customs information on its freight. “The system will pull up on the inspector’s screen the info on the cargo and driver,” explains Robert Ehinger, director of International Trade Data Systems in the U.S. Treasury Department. “The system will even include a picture of the driver’s face for verification.”
Tracking the Tags
Despite their vast potential in this area, radio-frequency tags won’t be confined to trucking and rail applications in the future. Another tag maker, Micron, says it’s working on supply-chain applications that will make it possible for companies to mark boxes and pallets for tracking all the way through the distribution channel.
Most industry experts agree that the future for radio-frequency tags is bright. As the word spreads about the benefits of this technology, logistics managers pressed to find new ways to rev up the movement of goods through the distribution channel will surely consider adding tags to their teams.