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RFID-Enabled Electronic Seals

Companies can employ these devices not only to secure their shipping containers but also to speed shipments through ports and gain business intelligence. Here's what you need to know to decide whether an RFID e-seal solution fits your enterprise's needs.
By Jennifer Zaino
Aug 01, 2009—Whether you're a manufacturer, logistics provider or port operator involved with the transportation of cargo by ship, rail or truck, you're likely familiar with the practice of securing containers or vehicles with tamper-indicating seals. Today, thousands of available commercial seals—either mechanical or electronic—can indicate whether a door was opened without authorization. But that's where the similarity among these seals ends.

Mechanical seals employ simple bolt or cable-lock mechanisms to obstruct the opening of cargo containers or vehicle doors. While a broken seal makes it obvious that a breach has occurred, it's possible for the bolt or lock to be removed and replaced without the shipper's knowledge.

Electronic seals (e-seals) include physical protection, such as a bolt, as well as a sensor that can monitor for tampering, or some other electronic way to ensure goods are protected. For example, some e-seals can be opened only with a corresponding electronic key received over high-security data links at the destination site. Some can send data about potential tampering and where it might have occurred via a GPS (global positioning system) in combination with satellite or cellular networks, before cargo is loaded into a carrier, en route at sea, and after it arrives at its destination.

More recently, radio-frequency technologies—including active (battery-powered) RFID, passive RFID and ZigBee—have been added to e-seals to provide close-range capabilities. This enables data transmission to interrogators located within distances of just hundreds of feet, affording an alternate way to monitor, say, cargo at rest in a yard or depot. Passive and active e-seals can also be combined with GPS, satellite and cellular services, such as GSM (Global System for Mobiles), so companies can alternate between communications as needed.

There are other differences between standard e-seals and RFID-enabled e-seals. In addition to securing containers, RFID e-seals can speed shipments through the supply chain and increase visibility. Many port operators are likely to have the infrastructure on their gates to support different RFID e-seal technologies. Here's a closer look at the benefits RFID e-seals can deliver.
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