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Ford Builds RFID into Pickups and Vans to Track Cargo

RFID readers are now available as an option in Ford vans and pickup trucks as part of the Ford Work Solutions program. Embedded readers work with an in-dash computer to alert operators if tagged items, such as tools, supplies, or personal items, are missing from the vehicle.
Feb 08, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

February 8, 2008—The newest mobile RFID reader is more than six feet wide, 17 feet long, weighs a few thousand pounds, and is known more for its horsepower than its MHz. Ford's popular F-150 pickup trucks are now available with an RFID reader integrated in the bed to monitor cargo. The RFID tracking capability is part of Ford Work Solutions, a program the automaker announced at this week's Chicago Auto Show. Ford is also offering embedded RFID readers in work vans and plans to expand the offering to another model line next year.

Ford Work Solutions is a series of software and services for vehicle, worker, and asset management. It is targeted to contractors and other customers who use their vehicles for work. The applications rely on an in-dash computer now offered as an option for 2009 model year F-150 and F-Series Super Duty pickups and E-Series vans. Ford worked with DEWALT, a leading power tool maker, and RFID reader manufacturer ThingMagic to develop the new Tool Link system. Customers receive a supply of specially designed Gen2 RFID tags to apply to the tools, toolboxes, containers, or other items they want to track.

"Tool Link will help contractors easily track what tools are in their vehicles and ultimately help increase job site productivity," Chris Allen of DEWALT said in ThingMagic's announcement.

Two RFID antennas and ThingMagic's Mercury 5e reader modules are embedded in the truck bed and are wired to the in-dash computer. The readers detect each time tagged objects are removed and replaced. Drivers can quickly check the screen to see if anything is missing before leaving the job site.

"Even though the system is built on standards that have been in place for several years it was still a challenge," Ravi Pappu, ThingMagic's co-founder and head of advanced development, told RFID Update. "I think this is the kind of custom engineering that will be required for new applications."

The RFID system was designed to work in all-metal pickup beds and can also read tags on items inside optional hard plastic cargo boxes, which are commonly used. ThingMagic helped develop two types of Gen2 tags for the program. The tags were designed to integrate easily with most tools and equipment and withstand harsh conditions associated with construction and other work environments. Tool Link customers will receive a supply of tags as part of the system and can order more through DEWALT.

RFID readers could be developed as an aftermarket product for pre-2009 pickups, according to Pappu, but he noted the in-dash computer is essential to the system.

The computer also supports navigation and communication services and business applications available through Ford. Pricing was not disclosed. Ford said next year it will offer Ford Work Solutions for Transit Connect vans, which are marketed to small businesses.

"I think it is really the first time item-level tagging has appeared at the consumer level," said Pappu. "Other item-level tagging has been in the supply chain. This is something consumers can use themselves."

Consumers are exposed to item-level tags on merchandise at clothing, book, and department stores and at many libraries, but there are few opportunities for them to use the technology. However, there are parallels in other applications. RFID-based file tracking systems, for example, usually require users to apply their own RFID labels to track files and documents, with readers embedded directly in file cabinets or document trays. (See RFID File Tracking is Heating Up and RFID Solution Tracks 100,000 Individual Documents for some recent coverage.) Most asset tracking applications (using passive, active, and RTLS technologies) also involve self-tagging, but readers aren't usually embedded in the work equipment.

See Ford's announcement
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