Parker Hannifin's O-Ring Division manufactures O-rings—doughnut-shaped components generally molded from synthetic elastomer materials, used primarily to seal fluids in everything from passenger cars to construction equipment and kitchen and bath faucets. They serve a critical function in many types of machinery, and can cost thousands of dollars. They're also easy to counterfeit.
It's the latter attribute that led O-Ring Division, based in Lexington, Ky., to consider using RFID to track O-rings and ensure that customers receive legitimate products. "Almost all O-rings are black and round, and it's impossible to visually distinguish a high-performance O-ring—for instance, one that is suitable for aircraft hydraulic fluid and will last the life of the airplane—from a cheap O-ring that won't," says Dan Ewing, the company's senior chemical engineer. "Sadly, there have been cases, some of them well-publicized, of unethical suppliers selling inferior product with fraudulent packaging and certification documents."
In early 2008, Ewing says, O-Ring Division was challenged by customers to create a way to make it impossible—or, at least, extremely difficult—for them to receive counterfeit O-rings. "The incumbent practice is to rely on the package label, but this can be easily circumvented by an unethical supplier," he explains. "If the package could not be trusted, that left two possibilities: adding some form of identification to the outside surface of the O-ring, or adding some form of identification to the inside."
Anything attached to the surface or cut into the product could result in a leak, hindering the O-ring from performing its primary function. "We determined that adding identification within the rubber was necessary," Ewing states. "It quickly became apparent that RFID was the only viable means of conveying information that is stored within a rubber O-ring seal."
Developing a Multi-Use Solution
After speaking with key customers, Ewing says, O-Ring Division determined that in addition to preventing counterfeiting, there was value in using O-rings embedded with RFID tags to track large devices or assemblies. What's more, the company realized that encasing RFID tags inside soft, flexible rubber O-rings would protect the circuitry from almost any form of damage, including mechanical impact, chemical interactions, stray electrical voltage, and thermal shock, up to and including an open flame, for a short period of time.
Because this was a new use for RFID, Ewing reports, O-Ring Division decided its research and development team should work on the solution, until the technology was sufficiently developed to prove that it was functional. The company also formed an "evaluation committee" that included a chemist from research and development, a process engineer (to focus on how to make the parts) and a product engineer (to work on how the product would be used).
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