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BASF Tracks Chemical-Carrying Railcars in Real Time
A wireless sensor system enables the company to monitor the location and condition of cars used to transport its six most hazardous products.
Dec 03, 2009—Chemical company BASF is completing the installation of a wireless asset-tracking system to monitor the location and condition of its fleet of railcars containing the company's six most hazardous chemicals. The VeriWise tracking units, supplied by GE Asset Intelligence—an equipment services division of the General Electric Co.—along with GE's VeriWise software system, provides BASF with visibility of approximately 1,000 of its 7,000 railcars as they travel from chemical plants to customers throughout North America.
A VeriWise asset-tracking unit contains a GPS receiver, a communications satellite transceiver and a battery (recharged by a set of four solar panels), as well as optional sensors, such as those used for detecting impact and motion, or for measuring temperature. The entire unit measures 2.5 inches by 11 inches by 30 inches, and is bolted to the top of a railcar. Once installed, the device transmits its ID number, its location and any other data at predetermined intervals over a low-orbiting communication satellite, to a VeriWise server hosted by GE. BASF can then access the information via the Internet. According to Steven P. Williams, BASF's logistics technology manager, VeriWise software running on the server can also send alerts to BASF and authorized users in the event of a specific incident—such as a railcar collision, an unacceptable temperature fluctuation or tampering with a car's dome (the hatch built into the top of the car, used to access the interior).
In 2005, says Doug Hoehn, GE Asset Intelligence's commercial leader, BASF first began working with GE to find an automated solution that would provide greater visibility into railcar movement throughout North America. The chemical company was interested in two things: improved efficiency of fleet management, and greater security based on data regarding the cars' condition. Security-related information could then be provided to such agencies as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
BASF utilizes its fleet of railcars to transport 50 different commodities—some hazardous and some not. The company's Rail Command Center manages the fleet, and is responsible for tracking the location of every railcar, whether loaded or empty. Until the firm installed the VeriWise system, however, most data came to the command center from the railroad companies that own the tracks on which the railcars travel.
BASF owns some of the railcars it uses, and leases others. In either case, if the company's employees wanted to know where a particular car was, they needed to contact the railroad operators, which then often had to do their own legwork—such as contacting specific rail yards, and sometimes sending railroad workers out into the yard to look at cars' serial numbers. If a car spent too much time at a specific location, railroads also charged BASF a demurrage fee, which could be expensive and impossible to verify. "We wanted to develop technology that would provide us with more accurate, timely data [than the existing manual method]," Williams says. "and help us reduce the number of cars in our fleet."
Moreover, BASF wanted to receive rapid alerts in the case of any incident involving cars loaded with its most hazardous chemicals. For the past three years, BASF and GE have been using and improving on GE's VeriWise technology, including hardware and software. The initial deployment consisted of 133 tracking units, tested to prove the hardware's reliability. BASF and GE also developed the server software to provide the type of information BASF needed most. Today, Williams notes, the company uses version number 5 of the hardware, as well as version number 4 of the software.
Some improvements throughout the multiple versions include the most recent tracking units' ability to both transmit and receive data (thus enabling BASF to communicate directly with the device), and software that allows a variety of access levels for authorized users, such as BASF's staff and customers. The company has installed VeriWise units on every railcar used to transport its most hazardous chemicals, as well as 90 percent of the cars utilized for the five next most hazardous chemicals. More than 1,000 cars already been equipped to date; BASF's goal is to equip a total of 1,200 cars.
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