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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
After the boat was completely loaded, the shipping and receiving personnel used the handheld readers to read all of the tags once again, to form another inventory list called the shipped boat roll call, in order to ensure that all the tagged items were on board. The boat captain's signature was then stored on the handheld reader. The shorebase dock roll call and the shipped boat roll call were then uploaded from the handheld reader to the server at the Venice facility. The lists were then saved locally and e-mailed to the offshore platform as CSV files.

By the time the supply boat reached the offshore platform, personnel working there had received the roll calls via e-mail and downloaded them to the Intermec handheld readers. When the boat arrived, a large crane on the offshore platform unloaded all of the cargo. Once unloaded, the platform's shipping and receiving personnel would read all of the tags once again and compile a manifest called the received platform roll call, which would be compared automatically on the reader to the shipped boat roll call, in order to ensure that all items on the shipped boat roll call matched those on the received platform roll call. The received platform roll call was then uploaded to a PC on the platform and saved locally before being e-mailed back to the Venice facility, where all of the roll calls were saved on the server.

The platform personnel then cleared the item data from all of the tags and repeated the same process in shipping tagged items back to the Venice facility.

During the pilot, each step in the process, from creating the master list, manifest and roll calls to physically attaching and writing to the tags, was timed and recorded. Although Fiatech did not establish a baseline standard for the timing of each current, non RFID-related task in order to compare time savings that would results from a conversion to an RFID-based shipping/receiving system, it concluded that the reduced paperwork and electronic inventorying would save time over the current manual process. A significant reduction in errors also would be expected with an RFID system, but the pilot did not produce any quantifiable data on the time savings or error reduction that a full implementation could provide.

The results of the pilot were released by Fiatech in a 35-page report called "Materials and Asset Tracking Using RFID" (free for Fiatech members and $375 Fiatech nonmembers) in September and showed that the technology was "relatively easy to implement and functioned well, even in harsh marine weather conditions."

The report also stated that if suppliers to the mainland facilities participated in an RFID system, the potential efficiencies and cost savings associated with deploying the system would be greater.

Specifically, the pilot report noted that the objectives of the project were to track the movements of shipments, reduce the amount of time and paperwork involved in loading shipments, reduce the amount of time spent on "error inquiries and error remediation" of lost or misdirected supplies. The purpose of the project was to study the feasibility of the RFID technology; determining the value or cost benefits the technology could offer were not part of the project's mission. For that reason, ChevronTexaco did not quantify an ROI or generate any estimates of how much an RFID implementation could save in labor or other costs, or how much is currently lost through inefficiencies.

According to the report, "the RFID system accurately identified 100 percent of tagged items [cargo baskets or bundles tagged directly] in each shipment in which the system was used," providing that the procedures for tagging, inventorying and manifesting were followed accurately.

There were some technical issues that had to be resolved during the pilot, revolving around read range and metallic interference. Initially, an RFID reader was placed in the cab of the crane that sits on the offshore platform and lifts the cargo baskets onto the platform. But the distance between the reader and the cargo, roughly 15 yards, proved too great for clear and consistent reads. As a result, the reader in the crane cab was removed and the platform's shipping and receiving personnel used handheld readers to read the cargo's tags.

The main issue in terms of the RFID functionality, however, was that radio interference, coming from the cargo basket and other metallic containers or materials near the basket, sometimes made writing information to the tags, as the outbound cargo was being prepared, impossible. In these cases, the tag had to be removed from the cargo basket in order to get a clear association on the handheld reader. This leaves a margin for error, because the tags might then be reattached to the wrong baskets. According to Jeff Jones, a ChevronTexaco IT project manager who helped implement the pilot, this was the biggest problem they faced with the technology, and it's something that will have to be addressed if the program goes forward.

Additionally, it was concluded that spending more time before the launch of the project training the personnel on using the hardware and software would have "ensured a more successful execution."

Overall, however, the authors of the report from Fiatech and ChevronTexaco concluded that integrating RFID into its logistics operations would result in "faster, easier, and more certain accountability while reducing the number of causes for misplaced, misdirected, lost and stolen items."

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