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ChevronTexaco Takes RFID Offshore

A field test at one of ChevronTexaco's offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico provides insights into how RFID can be used in shipping/receiving operations. ChevronTexaco is now looking at other pilot projects.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Conducted over 40 days between March and April, in 2004, the pilot tracked nine deliveries—each with anywhere from two to 42 tagged items, for a total of 136 tagged items out the 194 items shipped in the nine deliveries—from the onshore facility in Venice to the offshore platform. The pilot also involved four shipments from the offshore platform to the Venice facility, in which all items, which totaled 26, were tagged.

The pilot used Phase IV Engineering's CargoWatch battery-powered tags, which operate at 433.92 MHz, offer a read range of 60 to 150 feet and have 500 kilobytes of memory. ChevronTexaco staff used Intermec's 740A handheld computers with color monitors to read the tags. Phase IV retrofitted each Intermec device with its own reader that it developed for use specifically with the CargoWatch active tags.

The CargoWatch reader has an integrated bar code scanner to read the bar-coded ID label on each CargoWatch tag. A reader can pick up the RF signals from up to 100 CargoWatch tags at once, so when data needs to be written to a tag, the reader scans the tag's bar code first to identify the tag, thereby ensuring that the correct tag is being encoded, and not some other tag within the reader's read range.

Cargo baskets hold supplies being shipped to and from the offshore platforms

For a full implementation, tracking the items of greatest value, such as drilling tools, would be the priority. However, the pilot tracked only lower-value supplies that are shipped in larger quantities, such as water, groceries and cleaned laundry. This was done in order to include a greater quantity of items in the pilot.

Cargo baskets are large rectangular metal mesh containers, roughly 8 to 10 feet long, 4 feet deep and 4 to 5 feet wide, that sit on the boat's deck and hold supplies being shipped to and from the offshore platforms. Larger, full-metal containers, which have closeable doors and can hold larger items, were also used in the pilot. An RFID tag would be fastened to a cargo basket, one tag to one basket, with two zip ties and Velcro straps. The items being tagged ranged greatly in size, so in some cases a cargo basket contained just one item and in other cases items were bundled together with plastic wrap and put in a basket. (In some cases, where baskets carried supplies for multiple offshore facilities or where the items being tagged were too large to fit in baskets, the tags were placed directly on the items, rather than to the cargo baskets.)

Because cargo baskets tend to shift around the ship's deck during transport, the shipping clerks selected where each tag would be placed on each basket, based on its position in the boat. In total, there were 60 tags used in the course of the pilot.

To prepare a shipment, the Venice shipping and receiving personnel would pull from the SMA a master list of items to tag, and would save this master list in a CSV format and download it to the Intermec handheld computers using Microsoft Active Sync. Workers would then go into the yard and select the data describing each item on the master list and encode that data onto the tag for that item. As each item's data was written to a tag, it would also be entered into the shipment's manifest list, also in the handheld reader. If there was more than one item stored in a cargo basket or metallic shipping box, a list of items being tracked in the basket would be written to the tag on the cargo basket and each item in that list would be entered separately into the manifest.

Once all of the items to be tracked where written to the tags and all of the tagged cargo was collected on the dock, shipping and receiving personnel used the handheld readers to perform a roll call, called a shorebase dock roll call, which was done by simply pressing a roll call bottom on the reader. The reader interrogated the tags and confirmed that all of the manifest items were present. If all items were present, the reader displayed the list in green. If any item was missing, the list appeared red. If the reader read any tag that was not on the manifest, the list was blue. To identify any missing or misplaced tagged items, personnel had to upload the reader's data to the server. This would reveal the names of the missing or misplaced items.

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