Cows, Planes and Trains

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

Maintaining livestock's history of movement throughout its life.

Every time a farmer or rancher who participates in the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) sends a cow or a pig to a fair, auction, feedlot, state agricultural facility or slaughterhouse—virtually anywhere it could commingle with other animals—that animal’s movement is recorded by RFID (radio-frequency identification) readers at those sites. The USDA’s NAIS animal tracking databases maintain the animal’s history of movement throughout its life.

Despite substantial opposition to the RFID tags proposed for the NAIS, this technology is already being used to track millions of manufacturing parts and billions of dollars worth of retail inventory worldwide. Not surprisingly, the arguments for and against the use of RFID have struck a similar chord across most industries. These include issues involving technology, standardization and cost.

Cost is a major concern in the agricultural industry, with many farmers and ranchers balking at the idea of tagging huge herds with ID tags costing about $1.50 apiece. Initially, the cost of RFID systems was also an issue in the manufacturing industry. However, more recently, many companies have decided that these systems represent a solid investment that will pay off in smarter, more efficient materials movement, as well as better inventory management.

For example, Boeing’s Philadelphia manufacturing site, where the aerospace company refurbishes aircraft and assembles the V-22 Osprey and CH-47 Chinook rotorcraft, faced a major challenge: tracking the movement of more than 100,000 SKUs across a 335-acre facility and between business partners. More than 95 percent of the parts were moved to warehouses or were sent back and forth between Department of Defense customers.

Previously, the company used a staging area where employees worked overtime sorting and inventorying kits of parts. Now, Boeing’s Parts Tracking and Accountability system uses Metalcraft RFID tags to sort these kits. The system enables employees to see parts when they’re on the shelf, in transit and during receipt.

The ability to track the movement of parts has other benefits, as well. For instance, misplaced tools or equipment can be “sniffed out” with a handheld RFID reader.

Another company that’s benefiting from RFID tracking capability is Dow Chemical. With federal regulations requiring Dow to closely track and monitor shipments—particularly those involving hazardous materials—Dow found RFID technology to be an ideal solution. The company uses Savi Technology’s SmartChain system on an application service provider basis, using RFID tags to monitor the movement of rail cars and to keep tabs on conditions such as temperature and the pressure of tank car contents.

As each car passes various readers installed along the tracks, SmartChain matches information transmitted by the car’s tag against expected routes and destinations. As a result, Dow says it has achieved a 50 percent improvement in the ability to identify and resolve in-transit problems, a 90 percent improvement in the ability to specify delivery times and a 20 percent reduction in excess stock inventory. —D.B.

This article was originally published on 2008-04-30
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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