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RFID Enables Innovation in Water Jug Distribution

Custom RFID solutions provider Northern Apex has announced its work with S2C Global Systems to add core RFID capabilities to S2C's forthcoming Aquaduct water jug dispensing and return system. RFID capabilities were a necessary feature of the Aquaduct, which S2C hopes to roll out by the thousands around North America.
Jul 17, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

July 17, 2007—Custom RFID solutions provider Northern Apex has announced its work with S2C Global Systems to add core RFID capabilities to S2C's forthcoming Aquaduct water jug dispensing and return machine. RFID capabilities were a necessary feature of the Aquaduct, which S2C hopes to roll out by the thousands around North America.

Each Aquaduct houses dozens of standard five-gallon water jugs. It is a very large contraption, meant to be installed outside in the parking lots of convenience stores, supermarkets, or other establishments where consumers would go to replenish their water (see image). The idea is that instead of placing water jugs within a retail establishment, where shelf and floor space is relatively costly, the Aquaduct allows retailers to store them outside. Furthermore, the Aquaduct's automation enables consumers to purchase new, full jugs and return empty ones all on their own, without the aid of an attendant. The convenience makes it compelling for consumers; the automation makes it cost effective for retailers.

Each Aquaduct has two openings, one at the top and one at the bottom. When the consumer purchases a new jug, it is released through the bottom opening. The consumer retrieves the jug and puts it in his car. When the consumer returns an empty jug, he places it in the Aquaduct's top opening, where there is a molding that requires a particular positioning for the jug to fit. This is where RFID comes into play. The moldings are equipped with RFID reader antennas, and each jug carries a tag on the flat bottom end. When the consumer places the empty jug within the molding, the antenna reads the tag, and the system registers that the consumer has returned the jug. This return processing allows the consumer to receive his deposit back or have it rolled forward to the next jug. (Presumably when a consumer returns an empty jug, he will want to purchase another full one.)

RFID also plays a key role upon purchase. Each Aquaduct is equipped with a credit card payment panel, which the consumer uses to purchase a jug. When the jug is dispensed out of the bottom opening, its tag is read, and the jug identification information is associated with that particular consumer. This is how the Aquaduct knows when a consumer has returned his particular empty jug.

Northern Apex account manager Matt Forman explained that there were a couple key challenges that had to be overcome when designing the Aquaduct system. First, the RFID tags placed on the bottom of each jug had to be highly durable. Jugs undergo a harsh cleaning process that includes a very high temperature sterilization process. In the course of its lifecycle, a jug might be washed 50 to 75 times. Furthermore, the tags had to endure unpredictable wear and tear, as jugs pass from consumer to consumer, many of whom are not likely to treat them delicately. Northern Apex decided on encapsulated tags from TAGSYS which were originally designed for the laundry industry.

The second challenge was in making the Aquaduct completely automated and "fool proof". A key part of S2C Global Systems' pitch to the retailers at whom it is targeting Aquaduct is that the machine will allow consumers to purchase water and return empties without the need for an attendant. (This automation is in fact an innovation for the water industry generally, which typically still uses manual labor to pick up and drop off water jugs at homes or offices.) The Aquaduct therefore had to be not only intuitive for consumers, but highly robust to fortify it against exposure to the public and the elements. "The design is meant to require little or no support, ever," affirmed Forman.

It was decided early on in the design process that RFID would be a key enabler of the system. Bar codes could have worked technically, but they would have put too much burden on the consumer by requiring a line-of-sight scan. "You can't have a truly automatic system without RFID," said Forman. "This entire solution was built around RFID."

S2C Global Systems has a handful of Aquaducts installed in pilot mode, with a few dozen more ready for deployment. Additional Aquaducts are being produced every day, and the company is in talks with retail chains around North America in the hopes of signing on customers.
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