Magazine Article | August 24, 2006

RFID Sharpens Rail Carrier's Competitive Edge

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

An RFID (radio frequency identification)-based asset tracking system gives Specialized Rail Transport the answers it needs to cultivate customer loyalty.

Integrated Solutions, September 2006

In today’s competitive business environment, companies must go the extra mile to provide their customers with the information they want, when they want it. Specialized Rail Transport, a Houston-based rail operator that transports large turbines, generators, and transformers for such major players as General Electric, is no exception to the rule, particularly given the type of shipments it handles.

“A generator can be worth as much as        $10 million,” says Bob Felix, VP. “So, our customers want to know exactly what’s going on with each unit and where they are at any time.”

Toward this end, Specialized Rail Transport had been using a device that sends GPS (global positioning system) data from its railcars in transit to its back end systems. However, the device, which includes a shock sensor, did not function as consistently as the company would have liked. Specialized Rail Transport also wanted to integrate RFID into its tracking system to identify specific products in transit, as well as to have the ability to add vibration, temperature, and other types of sensors to tracking devices based on customers’ needs.

In the fall of 2006, Specialized Rail Transport expects to roll out the Asset Management Platform (AMP) from RFTrax. The solution encompasses the vendor’s asset command unit (ACU), a modular device that runs on a lithium battery charged by a solar panel mounted outside each railcar. The ACU solution includes a GPS receiver, a GSM (global system for mobile communications) cellular communication unit, an Identec Solutions i-card UHF (ultra high frequency) interrogator, and multiple sensors for sensing shock, radiation, temperature, and other forces to which goods being shipped are exposed during transit. Also part of the solution are Identec’s IQ UHF active RFID tags, which can be encoded and attached to goods, containers, railcars, or, in Specialized Rail Transport’s case, all three.

Specialized Rail Transport will use the RFID interrogators, along with other sensors, to generate location and environmental data (such as railcar temperatures, vibration and shock conditions). Data will be wirelessly transmitted back to the RFTrax server over a GSM/GPRS (general packet radio service) digital cellular system. By logging on to RFTrax’ Web site, Specialized Rail Transport customers will be able to access maps and other graphics depicting the whereabouts of their shipments in real time and detailed histories of a shipment’s progress, including a list of anomalies/problems and the time they occurred. Additionally, customers will have an opportunity, via the Web site, to view real-time and historical data detailing environmental conditions, such as the amount of vibration experienced when a railcar rounded a certain curve at a specific point along the transport route to the temperature inside a given railcar at a particular time of day.

The GSM component of the solution will allow the interrogator and each of the sensors to be programmed remotely while shipments are en route to their destinations. For example, at a customer’s request, Specialized Rail Transport can set the reader to search for tags with certain ID numbers or for those that have sensed that a railcar has started or ceased to move.

Specialized Rail Transport tested the system for several months before signing a deal for five ACUs and a software license. The test was conducted on railcars carrying shipments for one of the company’s largest customers. “Using the system, we kept better track of the customer’s assets,” Felix says. “In the past, we would not have been able to quickly pinpoint a problem and its source. However, during the pilot we determined the presence of a loose wire and remedied the situation before it became a major snafu.”

The company intends to offer RFID asset tracking as a premium service to its clients. “The system will really permit us to go the extra mile,” Felix asserts. “Customers are impressed when you can tell them where a load is and where it’s been and precisely when a load will arrive. We’ll also have the tools for providing complete answers when a shipment arrives damaged, because by tapping into the system, we will be able to tell whether the damage occurred on the rails or is a manufacturing issue. For us, this technology will be a true competitive weapon.”