The Sugar Land, Texas-based firm is marketing its electronic tracking device to a number of rail car markets, including those for plastic resin.
RFTrax marketing director Tom Moccia has a keen understanding of this issue from his days in the plastics industry with GE Plastics, M.A. Hanna Co. and Conoco Inc.
“I know how hard it is to monitor and track plastic rail cars,” Moccia said in a recent phone interview. “Every time we shipped resin by rail, we were losing cars. Customers wouldn't get their resin on time and there were times when nobody knew where the [resin] cars were.
“So we started to go to trucks [for shipping]. At least then we could say when the material would get there. But truck pricing was very high — 5-6 cents per pound vs. 2 cents per pound for rail. Then customers would buy on consignment and use the rail cars as silos, but that was a big problem because you never knew how much resin they were using.”
Moccia now believes that RFTrax's Asset Command Unit can solve a lot of those problems. The ACU is a 6-pound electronic device with a chemical-resistant outer housing made of polycarbonate and polybutylene terphthalate. The unit is about the size of a lunchbox — measuring 7 inches by 10 inches with a depth of 3½ inches — and is fastened to the top of a rail car or locomotive.
The ACU has multiple sensors, a back-end database application hosted by RFTrax and a Web portal for customers to view and interact with information about their locomotives and rail cars. RFTrax manufactures the units — and even does its own injection molding — at a plant in Sugar Land.
The ACU “transmits to a private network so you can see where the rail car is at any given moment,” Moccia said. Sensors on the ACU can tell if a car is loaded or empty and also can indicate whether a rail car's doors have been opened. Technology is in the works that would allow customers to gauge how much resin is left in the car.
To date, RFTrax has sold ACUs for 1,000 locomotives and 500 rail cars. Major railroads are target customers for locomotive units, while shippers — including plastics and chemicals makers — are potential users of rail car units.
Petrochemical makers producing chlorine, fluorine, ammonia and other toxic inhalants already have bought a number of units. Moccia said makers of plastic feedstocks such as benzene also could benefit from the device. The plastic and chemical field holds great potential for RFTrax, he added, since firms in those segments operate about 250,000 rail cars.
Although some railroads currently have radio frequency identification devices on their cars, Moccia said their tracking systems aren't specific enough, and a signal can be lost if a car goes onto a non-RFID track.
The RFTrax ACU runs on a solar-powered lithium ion battery. Technical marketing director Bob Goertz said the battery's standard life is three to five years without maintenance. The ACU also can be set to broadcast its location at different intervals, he added. Typically, the ACU sends location messages two to four times per day. RFTrax also is looking to double the unit's capacity so that it can send 1,200 messages on a single battery charge.
The exterior of the ACU is made of what Goertz called a “third-generation” PC/PBT that's bulletproof and hermetically sealed. Its normal temperature range can withstand temperatures ranging from minus 13° to minus 76° F.
Initial purchase cost for each ACU ranges from $800-$1,000. Service costs average around $15 per month per car.
RFTrax — which employs 50 at a 30,000-square-foot site in Sugar Land — does not disclose annual sales figures.
The firm is a unit of Fairfield Industries Inc., a Sugar Land-based firm that ranks as a leader in seismic imaging services. Fairfield has annual sales of more than $250 million.