RFID tags with built-in sensors can monitor everything from temperature and humidity to shock or vibration, providing a way to certify product integrity and quality for goods - such as pharmaceuticals and vaccines, high-value electronics, fresh and frozen food and priority loads for military and government agencies.
Transportation service providers also can use data from RFID systems to improve service, prevent theft and generate additional revenue, industry executives and technology vendors said. 'It gives us more control,' said John Dwiggins, director of life science for Panther Expedited Services in Seville, Ohio. 'For the shipper, it is peace of mind.' Panther uses RFID technology in two different applications. One provides temperature monitoring and redundant tracking on refrigerated trailers in North America. A second system, called Sentinel, is being deployed on international freight and uses a combination of cellular and satellite networks to relay data on shipments as they move. Having constant access to information on loads means that Panther can respond to problems much more quickly, Dwiggins said. Some responses are simple, such as an adjustment to the refrigeration unit or shifting of the load inside a trailer. But under some circumstances, the company could swap out a truck or a trailer if doing so would prevent spoilage or late delivery.
In fact, one of the driving forces behind the development of RFID tags with advanced sensing capabilities is a trend toward tighter federal regulation of food and drugs in the supply chain. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January 2011, requires the Food and Drug Administration to establish a system to track and trace domestic and imported foods.
Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of food and drugs, said the law represents 'a sea change for food safety in America.' 'We will establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illnesses or death, and we will set standards for the safe transportation of food.'
Although standards are not yet set, Jon Samson, director of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference of American Trucking Associations, said traceability will 'play a larger role in food safety and security' and technology that allows the tracking of a product along that entire supply chain 'will be crucial' to have for shippers and carriers alike.
Shippers and receivers probably will be affected by regulations more than freight carriers, Samson said. Shippers and receivers 'are in possession of the products the majority of the time before it reaches the consumer, which allows greater opportunity for something to go wrong,' he said.
Shawn Allaway, president of Cooltrax Americas, Nashua, N.H., said his company, which started in Australia in 2001, has targeted food distribution in North America as a potentially huge market for RFID systems because food retailers and restaurant operators 'are putting pressure on food manufacturers and distributors to provide verification of product management.' Allaway said that pressure is forcing companies to confront some 'old-school' practices, such as a driver who temporarily shuts off a refrigeration unit because it is too noisy, a warehouse manager who claims he can hold an ice cream container to tell if it is the proper temperature and the manager who says he's never lost a load. 'Having a tracking system can dispel any doubt about loads,' Allaway said. 'Some organizations don't want visibility because the people handling the product are telling management that everything is OK. Our business is myth-busting.'
One of the companies using Cooltrax's RFID system is Core-Mark Holding Co. The San Francisco-based company, which distributes fresh food and merchandise to grocery and convenience stores, ranks No. 87 on Transport Topics' Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in the United States and Canada. Its fleet has 288 tractors, seven straight trucks and 377 trailers. Another company is testing RFID for its nationwide home delivery fleet, Allaway said.
While ensuring that perishable foods are delivered fresh helps get dinner on the table, making sure medical products arrive unharmed can help save lives. At Cavalier Logistics in Chantilly, Va., company officials have equipped some of its trailers with temperature-sensing probes supplied by Hi-G-Tek Inc., a company based in Rockville. Md. Clifford Wyllie, vice president of Cavalier's Bio-Pharma Healthcare Services division, said the system is popular with shippers of pharmaceuticals that require precise temperature control at all times. 'It protects us,' Wyllie said. 'You can have $250 million worth of product on one truck.' Wyllie said most refrigerated trailers are 'static validated,' which means they are tested one time and validated for use for two years. 'How do you know if it stays qualified?' Wyllie asked. 'The cargo world is tough and forklifts are merciless.' Another standard practice is to use data loggers, which record temperature and other environmental conditions in a trailer but aren't connected to real-time communications systems and so can't be read until after a load is delivered.
An official with a trade group representing companies that distribute 80% of the pharmaceuticals and drugs in the United States said she expects additional legislation to spur adoption of electronic record-keeping systems. 'We have systems under development to determine drug pedigree,' said Elizabeth Gallenagh, vice president of government affairs for the Healthcare Distribution Management Association in Arlington, Va. 'Right now, we have a patchwork of state laws and . . . we are hoping for something at a federal level to encourage development of new systems.'
A resolution introduced in the House of Representatives last year - Safeguarding America's Pharmaceuticals Act - would require the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a system for identifying and tracking certain medications and controlled substances as they move through the supply chain. The legislation would also expand requirements for licensing of wholesale distributors, including mandatory background checks, and would require the secretary to study threats to the domestic prescription-drug supply chain.
Beyond tracking the condition of sensitive cargo, RFID is also being used to handle some routine transactions. For example, RFID is used at border crossings and ports to verify driver credentials. It also is used to collect tolls and roadside safety compliance data. In addition, at some truck stops, RFID is used to control the amount of fuel that is dispensed into fuel tanks. And in early March, QuikQ Inc., a company based in Franklin, Tenn., that offers RFID-enabled fuel-monitoring systems, announced plans to capture data directly from onboard vehicle systems. 'Fleets can now incorporate bus-data information into the fuel transaction,' QuikQ President Ernie Betancourt said in making the announcement at the Truckload Carriers Association annual meeting in Kissimmee, Fla. Accessing such data while vehicles are being fueled would 'eliminate the need for driver data entry and provide the carrier with additional information related to fuel control,' Betancourt said.
Keith Nalepka, vice president of business development for Hi-G-Tek, said RFID can also be used to guard against theft. Nalepka said RFID tags can be programmed to sound an alarm when doors are opened or trailers are disconnected from the tractor and if units go outside a predetermined route.
Retailers also continue to expand the use of RFID from tagging boxes and pallets to individual products.
'There's a lot of conversation between manufacturers and retailers about imbedding tags in garments or on hang tags,' said Patrick Ahern, vice president of National Retail Systems in North Bergen, N.J.
Item-level RFID tagging would give a fashion retailer the ability to divert hot-selling merchandise already loaded in containers or trailers, said Ron Margulis, a spokesman for Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Solutions, an organization that promotes adoption of electronic data exchange among shippers and vendors. 'RFID gives freight carriers an opportunity to add value,' Margulis said. 'If I'm a trucker receiving a product at the Port of Long Beach, I want to make sure everything on the manifest is in the trailer. With an RFID reader, you can survey an entire shipment at once.'
Mike Maris, senior director of transportation at Motorola Solutions Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., a leading manufacturer of RFID systems, said he sees new applications for the technology based on 'context awareness.' A courier firm that has trucks operating on city streets could use specialized RFID tags to report icing conditions or pot holes, for example, providing real time data to traffic managers and road crews. 'The capability is there,' Maris said. 'What we've not seen is the outfitting of trucks that can accept information and shoot it out over a wireless connection to help in the decision-making process.'
Jay Steinmetz, chief executive officer of Barcoding Inc., Baltimore, said he sees a convergence between scanning bar codes and use of RFID with benefits for both shippers and carriers. RFID will broaden the market,' he said. 'The pie has gotten larger. We're going to see RFID installations where they've never existed before.' Having access to information about products whenever and wherever they exist gives shippers and carriers the ability 'to make a decision at the moment it needs to be made,' Steinmetz said. 'No longer are you waiting for a reaction from the customer,' he said. 'More trucks will be managed remotely. There will be no more excuses for lost loads. Service predictability is much higher.'