Invisible Force

RFID TagsNot long ago, a technology known as radio frequency identification, or RFID, burst onto the scene as the ultimate answer to accurate inventory control. RFID is essentially comprised of two key components — a chip which contains information, and a reader that can pick the information off the chip from various distances depending on the sophistication of the system.

RFID technology has become ubiquitous on many toll roads (chip placed on windshield and read by a scanner at the toll booth) and in high-security clearance areas (chip placed on worker badges) to streamline security and traffic control.

But it has been used on precious few other applications — until recently. Rich Bravman, president and CEO of Intelleflex, a company that specializes in RFID technology, is helping a number of industries apply the technology in productive ways. He explained that RFID is a technology that is finally “Crossing The Chasm,” to quote the famous technology evolution book by Geoffrey Moore, and is already positively affecting product distribution and tracking in agriculture.

There are applications both extremely simple and wildly complex to which RFID technology is being applied. At the ag dealership, a good example of a company taking baby steps toward using RFID is Bear River Supply in Rio Oso, CA.

Based in the north Sacramento Valley serving rice, specialty, and row crop growers, Bear River will loan equipment for growers to use throughout the year, but in particular during the busy spring season. “They use pull spreaders, liquid fertilizer applicators, storage tanks, tenders, spreaders, and other equipment,” says Rich French, location manager at Bear River. “Tracking this equipment has always been a challenge — it goes out and sometimes stays there, and sometimes moves from farmer to farmer. So we were looking for some way to keep track of it.”

They decided to give the RFID system a try. In Bear River’s case, the system utilizes a reader at the location entrance, individual and inexpensive RFID tags for each piece of traced equipment, and software to record reader data when it recognizes a tag.

Each piece of equipment gets a plastic RFID tag, which is loaded with information about the unit it is identifying. When a piece of equipment leaves the yard, the reader picks up the tag information and sends it wirelessly to the office computer, which displays and records the information. Because the equipment is delivered by Bear River employees to the grower location, the destination of the equipment can be easily confirmed by the employee.

If the equipment needs to be moved from one grower location to another, the employee can pick up the equipment, move it to another location, and mark the new location using a portable tag reader. Back at the office, the information can be loaded into the system, which updates the location of the equipment.

More Possibilities

French says that while the simple equipment tracking is making a big difference for their business, “we are still getting our arms around this and learning new ways to use it every day.”

French says that he expects to be expanding his use of RFID tagging next season. He hopes to be using it to track down “lost” equipment by bringing out portable readers to farm sites. They will also be using it for more types of equipment that tend to get lost in the shuffle of the busy season. “We deliver tanks with gas engine pumps that cost $500 to $1,000, and if you can recover one or two of these that grower lose track of, you do very well,” says French.

They are also looking at storing more information on the tags, including maintenance records for internal and regulatory purposes. “We would like to use them on more vehicles to tell us where a vehicle went, and track information about where products were delivered and who is using what service.”

Finally, French is exploring the use of tags to establish a fixed location. “If we tag a portable storage tank, we can set the tank and mark a GPS point,” says French. “That way, when we send trucks to deliver to that particular tank location, the GPS mark becomes a way point that we can indicate on a map and provide mapped navigation to the driver.”

French admits that he’s only touched the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to RFID technology, “but we’re constantly looking for new ways to use it.”

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