Bringing sensors and RFID together

RFID suppliers continue to innovate in the supply chain

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Supply chain software had a pretty good year in 2010, up about 10% over 2009. I just finished writing our annual look at the top 20 providers of supply chain software for the July issue. Here’s a link to last year’s story.

While it sounds like old news, one of the business drivers for new investments in supply chain software was the continued need for greater visibility into the supply chain. “The lack of visibility is forcing end users to look at applications that can be leveraged to track goods in motion,” said Chad Eschinger, a research director at Gartner.

That brings me to the promise of RFID and a solution I came across from TempTrip. You might wonder how I get to RFID from software. Here’s the connection: The kind of applications Eschinger was referring to are data-hungry beasts. To get those greater levels of visibility, you have to constantly feed data to the beast, and collect data from more and more points across the supply chain.

Enter TempTrip. The company has come up with a way to tie barcode, RFID and sensor technology together to collect data that might impact the shelf life of temperature sensitive products such as fresh produce or pharmaceuticals.   

It’s a great example of the kind of innovation we’re seeing in this space and a reason that RFID is posting impressive numbers, especially in manufacturing and logistics outside the four walls. It’s also an example of how big business is seeing the potential in supply chain solutions: While the company has the vibe of a startup, it’s a subsidiary of Sealed Air.

TempTrip is not the first company to integrate sensors with RFID, acknowledges Phaedra Culjak, TempTrip’s chief operations officer. “What excites me is the way we’re doing it,” she says.

The company’s solution uses short read-range passive RFID tags with a temperature sensor that monitors the temperature of the product it is attached to. Configurations are set on the tag according to alarms – when temperature goes out of a specified range. The tag logs temperatures according to time intervals determined by the customer. That information is then tied in the system to a specific pallet, tote or container.

The RFID reader has an integrated barcode reader. Out in the field, an end user will scan the barcode on the pallet and then read the temperature information on the RFID tag. That ties the temperature information to a specific unit load of product. The software associated with the solution can then determine the remaining shelf life of the product.

In addition, the solution can break up the transport of a product into trip segments and hand off the shelf life calculations to each player in the supply chain. “That allows you to identify what happened to a product and where before it arrives at a DC,” Culjak says.

To enable reading in the field, TempTrip has come up with something it calls MiFi, which is a small device about the size of a cigarette box that will tell you when the reader is connected to a cellular or WiFi network and can upload data. “Initially, we were doing real-time uploading, but it was too much of a drain on the batteries,” says Culjak. So, it’s near real time, which is probably sufficient for most users.

The last differentiator: the solution is offered in a subscription-based cloud model. “We don’t have software installed on a PC anywhere,” Culjak says. Nor is there a cost to the tags. Those are provided to the end user by TempTrip and are returned at the end of a trip, much like a pooled pallet is returned to Chep, Peco or iGPS at the end of a trip.

“We wanted technology that is easy to use in the field, and also drives the cost down so that the monitoring in the industry becomes part of the every day logistics and supply chain functions that occur,” Culjak says. “We have customers who have told us they wanted to do temperature monitoring, but there wasn’t an easy or affordable way to do it. We think this makes it really simple.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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