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RFID Tracks Wooden Utility Poles at the Factory and in the Field

Cox Industries is using EPC Gen 2 tags to manage the storage and shipment of poles that it makes, while a South Carolina city is employing similar tags to manage its poles' inspection and maintenance.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 16, 2011Cox Industries is attaching passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to wooden utility poles after they are manufactured at its Blackstone, Va., facility, in order to track their location and status within the yard in which they are stored and then loaded onto trucks bound for utility companies across the Eastern Seaboard. At the same time, in the city of Orangeburg, S.C., the Department of Public Utilities' Electric Division is applying similar tags to 20,000 poles, for use by its inspectors and maintenance staff.

Both solutions are provided by Sustainable Management Systems. Although the two applications represent different segments in the approximately 40-year lifespan of a wooden utility pole, says Barry Breede, Sustainable Management Systems' CEO, they could eventually be combined by means of a single tag, attached by a pole manufacturer to each log arriving by truck from a lumber company and used by both the manufacturer and the utility companies that are its customers.

Orangeburg’s Department of Utilities is attaching ruggedized EPC Gen 2 passive RFID tags to its wooden poles.
Utility poles, used to support overhead power lines and various other cables and equipment installed by other public utilities, usually measure approximately 40 feet in height. Most are made of wood, and it is these poles that are being targeted for this technology.

Cox Industries' chief operating officer, Greg Campbell, envisions being able to provide RFID data about the locations of wood poles. Initially, the company is tagging poles after they have completed the manufacturing process (which involves heating to remove moisture, as well as chemical treatment to make the wood more durable), and is using the tag-read data to track the poles' locations within its yard, as well as to ensure that the proper product is being shipped to its approximately 150 customers. The firm chose to employ less expensive tags that need not go through the rigors of the manufacturing process, though Breede notes that it could also use tags capable of withstanding the heat and chemicals. Though such tags would likely be more expensive, he adds, they would enable it to track a pole through the entire manufacturing process.

The next step for Cox, Campbell says, will be to make information about each pole's location—based on RFID data collected in the yard, as well as additional information derived from GPS units installed on delivery trucks—available to its customers on a Web portal. In that way, he explains, a customer could view an order's status, such as whether it is ready for loading or has already been loaded. If utility companies had RFID handheld readers, they could then encode the tags with such information as when a particular pole was inspected or maintained, and use that data throughout the pole's life.

Sustainable Management Systems was founded in 2009 by Breede, who was a member of Cox Industries' board of directors when that firm first began investigating inventory-tracking systems for managing the thousands of poles received at each of its 10 manufacturing sites. "I began to see there was a bigger business plan," Breede says, as he considered the challenges that utility companies faced when tracking poles within their own yards, and then while monitoring the inspection and use of those poles by other utility companies, once the poles were erected.

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