New RFID Staple Tag for Rough Wood Tracks Timber

Utility Composites' SunDog tag can be stapled directly into a tree, plank, pallet, railroad tie or other wooden item, with a read range of 35 feet, and can be read through water.
Published: May 8, 2019

While the forestry service provides a use case for UHF RFID technology—tracking each felled tree, or each cut plank from forest to retail—there hasn’t been an RFID tag that is uniquely suited for this environment, according to Andrew Frascone, Utility Composites‘ sales director. Rough wood doesn’t lend itself well to adhesives, for instance, so UHF RFID labels could be knocked or blown off, he explains. Tags screwed into the wood can create problems for mills that use cutting equipment where metal is incompatible. They also require several minutes for installation.

Utility Composites, a Texas-based fastener company, has built its solution to this problem with a passive UHF RFID-enabled plastic staple that can be quickly embedded via a staple gun. Until now, timber and forestry companies have been printing stamped metal tags that show an ID number, and that are then removed from the trees as they are shipped. Bar codes were the other alternative, Frascone says, but these may not withstand weather conditions or the heat of the drying ovens at a sawmill. Often, as much as 10 percent of felled trees still end up missing—typically, they aren’t collected from the forest floor, or they might roll to places where they then remain undetected.

Utility Composites’ SunDog tag

Utility Composites’ plastic RFID staple tag can be stapled directly into wood within a fraction of second. The tag is not only ruggedized to ensure it remains in the wood and functioning properly, Frascone explains, but comes with an extended antenna that enables it to be read from a long distance. It has a built-in Impinj UHF RFID chip.

Utility Composites makes three lines of fasteners: Raptor Nails, Black Magic Staples and the recently released SunDog RFID staples. The SunDog brand resulted from forestry industry requests. “There [are] a ton of different kinds of RFID tags,” Frascone says, “but nothing specifically for rough wood.” Therefore, the company built the tag and a specialized stapler to drive each staple into a log, tree or piece of wood within a fraction of a second. The staple has been tested for use in wood kiln ovens, as well as in chemical soaks lasting for hours.

A lumber company that has asked to remain unnamed is using the staple tags to track its logs in the field, and as they are received at the mill. Lumbermen first fell a tree, then cut it into sections, staple a SunDog tag to the end of each section, and read each tag via a handheld UHF RFID reader to add that log to the inventory. The reader could be linked via Bluetooth to a mobile device, and users could input data about the wood—a process known as grading the log. Each log is thereby assigned a value that is linked to the tag’s unique ID number.

When logs are delivered to the mill, they are offloaded into a pile to be de-barked and cut into planks. During the debarking phase and before the planks are cut, the tags can be read again. Because the tags are made of plastic, the company reports, they pose no problems for the wood-cutting equipment, and thus do not need to be removed. Once the logs are cut into lumber and stacked, the sawmill can use a new tag to track each time to the drying ovens, into dry inventory and on to the planer.

Using RFID rather than traditional printed or bar-code labels provides several benefits, according to the company. For one thing, the tags can be read at a range of about 35 feet, so workers can identify all logs within a pile using a handheld reader, sparing them the need to climb around the pile searching for particular logs. In that way, they can quickly identify when logs might be missing.

That long read range has enabled a host of other applications as well, the company has found. For instance, the staple is being applied to utility poles. The unique ID number encoded on each tag is linked to a specific pole and location. Then, when maintenance of the poles takes place, workers can pass each pole and read its ID without ever leaving their vehicles. They can view the pole’s history, as well as when and how it was last maintained.

If an employee notices a problem and needs to set up a service call—if a pole is leaning, for example—he or she can read that tag from the vehicle and input the reason for the service request. Workers could use that data to quickly identify which pole needs to be serviced.

Andrew Frascone

The staple can also be used on wooden pallets. Currently, RFID tags are being built into plastic re-usable pallets, though Frascone notes that these tags have a reduced read range. With the staple tags applied to wooden pallets, logistics companies, manufacturers or retailers could capture data about goods linked to a particular pallet as it passes through a dock door.

In addition, the system could be used to tag live trees. Lumber companies managing a forest of trees to be harvested can tag all of the trees within a specific area and link each tag ID with information about when the corresponding tree will be mature and ready for harvesting. The technology has also been tested in chemical and pressure treatment processes, so that the tags can be used for utility pole and railroad tie manufacturers.

Frascone says the SunDog staple tag has been tested underwater and has been found to transmit data when submerged. That, he adds, makes it a good solution for use cases in which tags may become wet or immersed in liquid, such as poles stacked in a yard with pooling water. The system is also being investigated by companies that provide crane ramps for construction sites.

Agencies or other companies can utilize the tags to monitor the health of living trees in a forest. The tags would help to track the identity of each tree, Frascone says. “If there were a disease in the forest,” he states, “they could easily identify the trees that are affected.”

Utility Composites is selling its product to systems integrators, as well as to end users. “We’re not a software company and we’re technology-agnostic,” he says. The firm has the specialized staple guns made by a third-party provider.