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RFID Contains Solution to Chinese Shipping Problems

China International Marine Containers recently launched an RFID pilot to track containers from its factory to the storage yard.
By Jill Gambon
When a container reaches its assigned location, its RFID tag appears on the forklift's mounted computer screen, along with the corresponding container identification information and a three-dimensional map of the yard. The forklift operator uses the touch screen to input the location of the container into the yard-management system, which is updated in real time. When it's time to ship a container from the storage yard, the system sends work orders to the crane via wireless messages, telling them to move the containers to a staging area.

The computer on the forklift displays the location on three-dimensional, color-coded mapping software with zoom-in capabilities. Using such a map, forklift operators can see where the containers are stored, even when stacked one on top of another. Workers can also search the system for a particular container by entering its identification number onto the touch screen.

The number of lost containers at the Shenzhen yard has been reduced from four to zero.

The trailers and containers are all equipped with RFID tags, which interrogators at the container-yard gate read. The system then confirms the customer and delivery information and updates the central yard-management database accordingly. With the discharge process automated, checkout time is significantly reduced, CIMC reports. The system then removes the tags at the storage yard exit gate before releasing the containers for customer delivery.

According to CIMC's Zhou, the company spent more than $128,000 on the pilot projectand is saving about $126,000 annually as a result of the streamlined operations. The savings came about for a number of reasons: The number of lost containers at the Shenzhen yard has been reduced from four to zero. Delivery mix-ups have been eliminated, the leasing of forklifts at the storage yard—necessary at busy times to augment the company's existing fleet—has been sharply cut down and workflow has been sped up.

Clearly, there is much need for real-time inventory tracking in the container industry. Approximately 17 million containers are currently in use across the globe, while annual production is in the low millions, according to ABI Research, a market research and consulting firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Robert Foppiani, a research analyst with ABI, says using RFID can help CIMC make operations more efficient. "It's a step in the right direction," he says.

The benefits of RTLS are expected to attract plenty of interest from companies looking to manage their inventory and assets better. Over the next 10 years, the RTLS market is anticipated to take off as equipment prices become more affordable and the technology becomes more portable. According to IDTechEx, a research and consulting business that focuses on RFID, the RTLS market will jump from $30 million in 2005 to $2.71 billion in 2016.

Laudis' Ritota maintains that the benefits of real-time asset tracking go beyond better inventory visibility and management; he says they also include tighter quality control, theft prevention, improved customer service and safer working conditions at the storage yard since workers no longer spend hours using heavy equipment or walking around searching for containers.

Based on the success of the pilot project, CIMC wants to expand the use of RFID. To that end, the firm is eyeing another container yard in Shenzhen, even bigger than the pilot site, as a likely spot. Zhou says: "It can help CIMC save labor and costs."

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