Trucking firm turns to RFID to fill black hole

RFID tags used to track trucking containers

Horizon Lines has turned to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to track containers seamlessly from a Seattle distribution centre over the sea and land to their final destination in Alaska.

While containers can be monitored while in ships and trains, historically, they vanish into black holes when being trucked on highways, said Rick Kessler, CIO of Horizon Lines and its Information Technology subsidiary, Horizon Services Group. The lack of RFID readers near many remote highways creates an "intermodal black hole," where passive RFID chips cannot be read, he said. Passive RFID tags have no local power source, and must be contacted by readers before they can transmit data, using the reader as a source of energy, and are generally limited to a few feet in range.

To overcome the lack of highway readers, the company placed so-called active RFID tags, which use an internal power source to contact readers, on 5100 containers. The active tags have a range of about 300 feet and can be read while moving at speeds of up 75 miles per hour. The active RFID tags used were from Identec Solutions, a U.K.-based maker of RFID systems. Also participating in the pilot was Safeway, California-based retail grocer that ships goods to its Alaska stores on Horizon trucks.

The implementation, completed last fall, required placing readers at two strategic spots on the primary truck routes in Alaska -- one of the readers is an hour from a Safeway store near the North Pole. A container full of goods can be tracked on the trek there from Safeway's Pacific Seattle distribution centres up to its stores in Anchorage.

Horizon officials wouldn't disclose the amount of savings generated by the new process, but noted that it permits a shipper to know the exact location of a load, the time of delivery, and allow it to schedule its operations more precisely and plan for any exceptions, delays or high priority movements. If there are problems with a shipment delivery, such as a truck breakdown, the customer can react accordingly.

Ultimately, said Kessler, Horizon would like to tag every container in its entire fleet, creating supply chain visibility all the way from Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the continental United States. The Horizon Services Group, he noted is now studying methods for deploying an RFID reader network on the highway system in the continental United States.