Advocates of radio-frequency-identification tagging and competing supply chain players have launched a six-month field test of RFID technology for polypropylene reusable transport containers.
The collaboration represents RFID's largest U.S. container evaluation effort to date, said Fred Heptinstall, president of the Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition and president and general manager of IFCO Systems NV's North American reusable plastic container division in Tampa, Fla.
Member companies of Washington-based RPCC are contributing services and providing equipment for the tests, said David Rodgers, vice president and general manager of the container services subsidiary of Orbis Corp. in Oconomowoc, Wis., and past RPCC president.
Returnable container suppliers include IFCO, Orbis and Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific Corp.
The trial ``represents a real collaboration between three staunch competing tag makers, three rival returnable container companies and Wal-Mart,'' said Michael McCartney, principal of Quality Logistics Management Inc. in Sausalito, Calif. RPCC retained QLM to oversee the program.
Late spring and early summer laboratory testing at Michigan State University's School of Packaging in East Lansing checked vibration and drop survivability for semiconductor chips and antennae on nine second-generation RFID tags on 230 reusable containers in erected and flat phases, according to McCartney.
Next, the containers, each with a distinctive neon-orange tag, were shrink-wrapped and sent to the Willoughby, Ohio, facility of label converter Kennedy Group Inc. There, Jay Singh, an associate professor of industrial technology at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, ran verifiable RFID readability studies on each tag.
Not all of the containers made it through the various stresses and a total of more than 14,000 procedures, McCartney said.
According to test results, the three best tags were the ALN-9450 Squiggle from Alien Technology Corp. of Morgan Hill, Calif.; the AD-222 from a unit of Avery Dennison Corp. of Pasadena, Calif.; and the DogBone from UPM Raflatac, a Tampere, Finland, subsidiary of UPM-Kymmene Corp.
``We were able to get 100 percent reads, 100 percent of the time throughout the tests,'' QLM's McCartney said of those three brands of tags.
Impinj Inc. supplied silicone semiconductor chips for the Avery Dennison and Raflatac tags. Alien provided its own chips.
Now the companies are set for another series of trials. Each tested container is expected to go through three 45- to 60-day life cycles during the next phase.
``At the end of three cycles, we will have lots of data,'' McCartney said.
The tags and the reusable containers will be subjected to nasty temperature, humidity and other weather conditions along with routinely rough field handling.
As part of the tests, three produce-distribution companies will ship full RPCs to Wal-Mart's distribution center in Cleburne, Texas.
When Wal-Mart receives the produce, it will transport the perishable loads to as many as 100 retail locations.
Empty collapsed RPCs then will come back through Wal-Mart's Cleburne center. IFCO will transport the containers about 70 miles to an Orbis service center in Garland for standardized inspection and washing processes involving each tag and container. From there, the RPCs will go back to the three produce distributors for another cycle.
At the conclusion of the trial, QLM will analyze the data and develop an industry white paper that may lead to an economic model for integrating RFID tags with reusable transport packaging.