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Get a Better Sense of Your Product's Condition

RFID sensors offer unique advantages compared with traditional cold-chain monitoring tools. Based on its work with cold-chain pilots, the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas tells you what you need to know to take advantage of them.
By Rustin Treat
Feb 01, 2008—Over the past few years, companies have been adopting radio frequency identification technology primarily for the purpose of track-and-trace; that is, "Where is [track] and where was [trace] my stuff?" The next logical question for many is, "What is the condition of my stuff?" The answer to that often depends on the environmental factors—such as temperature, humidity, shock and vibration—that impacted the products during shipping and handling.

Static temperature-monitoring technologies, such as digital data loggers, time-temperature indicator labels and chart recorders, have been around for many years. They require a physical connection to retrieve or output data in an analog format such as a printed strip chart. But sensor-equipped RFID tags promise to greatly improve environmental monitoring, providing better quality, less spoilage and safer products by automating the collection of data on environmental conditions and making it more cost-effective.

At the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas, we've worked with several companies on cold-chain pilots using RFID environmental sensors. The cold chain is any temperature- or environmentally controlled supply chain. The name is something of a misnomer, since the cold chain could also include those things that need to be kept hot. An environmentally controlled supply chain is often required for consumer-facing products such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, cosmetics, fresh-cut flowers and food. But many parts used in manufacturing also require strict environmental controls to ensure proper application (such as materials used in making aircraft) or to prevent damage (such as the rusting of parts). Basically, anything that can be damaged by the environment during manufacture, shipment or storage can potentially benefit from environmental sensors.

Based on our experiences with cold-chain pilots, we've found that sensor-equipped RFID tags—in particular, RFID data loggers with temperature sensors, the most common sensor commercially available for use in the cold chain—offer unique advantages compared with traditional cold-chain monitoring tools. RFID data loggers record temperature digitally at set intervals. Unlike current technologies that require manual labor to retrieve the tags—some even require shipment to an off-site location for analysis—RFID data loggers can provide real-time reporting, such as when a trailer enters a shipping yard.

In addition, RFID data loggers can provide more granular temperature data. Static loggers are typically placed on top of a pallet located in the middle of a trailer. But our research suggests that the temperature of pallets within a truck can vary, depending on their location; loading patterns, such as leaving a gap through the center; the use of chutes and air ducts, which are designed to distribute cold air from the refrigeration unit more evenly throughout the truck; and pallet height and build. Temperatures also can rise and fall when a refrigeration system moves through its defrost cycle, or when a truck's door is opened and closed. By tagging individual pallets and even cases, which is becoming cost-effective, companies can get more accurate information and take steps to extend the life of perishable goods.
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