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Conair Uses Its Own RFID Solutions to Expedite Shipments

The U.S. supplier of personal-grooming and kitchen appliances plans to have all of its factories apply EPC Gen 2 tags to individual products by the end of 2010, and is launching a new RFID-based cargo seal.
By Claire Swedberg
Alternatively, an internal GPS receiver can be placed inside the container with the cargo, to track its location without being seen, for security purposes. Whether internal or external, the GPS receiver transmits the container's location via a GPRS or SMS connection. A handheld RFID interrogator can then transmit the tag's unique ID number—via Wi-Fi or GPRS, or plugged into a PC with an Ethernet cable—to USA ID's server, where the information is stored and displayed for authorized users. GPS data from the same container is linked to that ID number on the server.

Since launching the first version of its RFID-enabled container seal, Conair has developed a shorter model that more closely resembles other container seals in use—a feature requested in the Hong Kong port at which Conair piloted the technology. The company applies the seals to containers as they move domestically, either by truck or rail. The second-generation seal, consisting of a bolt less than 3 inches in length that locks onto a body approximately 1 inch in width, length and height, has an EPC Gen 2 RFID tag with 512 bits of user memory. This seal is less expensive than the first-generation version, Arguin says—approximately the same cost as a non-RFID bolt seal. The first generation has a range of approximately 30 feet, while the new, shorter version—now awaiting ISO approval—has a range of 10 to 15 feet. Once the new container bolt is approved, Conair intends to use it for international transport of goods coming from manufacturers.

With the new version, like its predecessor, customs agents equipped with RFID readers could scan the container seal to obtain its electronic manifest. With the second-generation seal, the tag's 512-bit user memory is large enough to store the manifest, thereby facilitating the container-inspection process. As long as the seal does not send a signal indicating it has been damaged or broken, a customs agent would know that container has not been opened, and that its contents have thus not been altered.

Although the DHS and logistics companies have shown an interest in the technology, they have not yet adopted it, in part because they have not acquired the hardware—handheld interrogators—required to read the tags. "We did a demonstration with customs last summer, and they were very enthusiastic," says John Mayorek, Conair's senior VP.

USA ID is currently in the process of marketing and selling the RFID technology Conair is using to other companies. "This is right on the verge of busting loose," Mayorek notes, with product manufacturers and retailers looking at the labeling solution, and ocean carriers and trucking companies showing an interest in the GPS-enabled container seal. "My own personal observation is that these products [RFID labels and container seals] are definitely needed." Conair currently employs 10 to 15 workers at each of its warehouses, he says, just to track inventory to ensure that the actual warehouse stock is what the computer says it is, and that nothing is obsolete or missing.

"If we could scan every item," Mayorek states, "we could eliminate a lot of unnecessary steps and shorten up the supply chain." While he says RFID has been slow to be adopted, in some cases that is because no one wants to be the first to adopt the technology. "It takes someone like Conair and USA ID to prove the results first," Arguin says.

By the third quarter of 2010, Conair expects to have every product tagged.

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