Bar Codes are seemingly ancient technology in the logistics world. However, they are still in use everywhere in the supply chain–from cross docks to the check-out line at the grocery store. For years, we have been reading and talking about how RFID tags would replace them and how the superior tracking ability of RFID technology would render bar codes obsolete.
In the Automobile industry, this has been as true as any other. This applies to the movement and tracking of parts flows into assembly plants as well as the systems that have been built to monitor the flow of finished vehicles from the end of the assembly lines to dealers, where the final customer can take delivery.
"The incredible rate at which new technologies are moving into vehicles, investing in RFID now does not seem to make sense"
Over 17 million vehicles were delivered to dealers in the United States last year and a similar number will be delivered this year. Most of these vehicles move through an elaborate network, with some vehicles moving on ships, trains, and trucks to get to the dealer–and sitting in many yards while waiting to get on the next truck, railcar, or vessel. Almost all of these vehicles are “tracked” in some manner by the manufacturers-either directly or with the assistance of TMS systems built by companies like ICL Systems.
In today’s world, a key part of the tracking network that enables carriers to know when vehicles enter or leave yards is the old tried-and-true barcode. Barcodes are typically scanned by yard operators to record movements into, out of, and within these yards. This data is critical for the current Yard Management Systems and Transportation Management Systems to function.
Over the years, RFID has been proposed as the replacement for the barcode in these yards and countless studies, analyses, and pilot projects have been conducted in a vain attempt, so far, to replace “ancient” bar code technology. There have been a few seemingly successful locations where RFID has been implemented. However, for the most part, the vast majority of vehicles continue to move through the network without RFID tracking.
My view is this: the cost of the tags and the towers or rings required to sense and locate the RFID tags has not been worth the trip. Sure, everyone likes the idea of “pushing a button” and knowing instantly within a few feet where every vehicle is located, but, the cost of that “nice to have” hasn’t been worth it. The old bar code does a pretty good job, when used properly with good process control, which has been put into place over the years to make them highly reliable. Also consider that the bar codes themselves are at this point, virtually free: printed automatically on some other document that probably needs to be created anyway for another purpose.
So, what is the future of RFID? Will it eventually replace the bar code for vehicle Yard Management Systems?
I don’t think it will. In the vehicle world, RFID will soon be leapfrogged by telematics. More and more vehicles are currently being built with the technology to know tons of information about the vehicle: how fast it is moving, how the engine is running, and of course, where exactly the vehicle is located. This technology isn’t in every vehicle yet, but things are heading that way. As the technology to enable this connectivity continues to improve and the installation cost continues to drop, the hyper competitive auto industry will force each manufacturer to keep up, resulting in more and more vehicles eventually getting this technology as standard equipment.
Once all of a manufacturer’s vehicles have this technology and can be successfully “pinged” at any time without excessive battery drain (not an insignificant consideration, yet one I am sure will be figured out pretty soon), then the telematics that are already in every vehicle (and therefore, “free”) can be utilized to provide all of the advantages of RFID without any of the costs for tags, towers, or other equipment.
When the vehicles are “pinged,” you will not only be able to determine the vehicle’s location, but also other important attributes. Are any of the tires low on air or flat? Is the battery getting low and in need of a charge? Does the vehicle have enough fuel to be moved for the remainder of its journey? This data can then be used to automatically call and schedule the fuel fill, battery charge, or flat tire repair that is necessary.
Today’s vehicle Yard Management Systems keep track of when vehicles enter and leave yards, and they also track precisely where they are parked in each yard. The new on-board telematics can be used to determine where the vehicles are, and can be instructed to tell the yard drivers where exactly to park the vehicle when unloading from a vessel or a railcar. Imagine the driver getting into the vehicle, starting the engine, and the car “tells” the driver, “Please take me to lot B and park me in space Z197.” and at some point in the future there might be no driver at all. The Yard Management System “tells” the car to drive itself off the ship and park in lot B space Z197.
We are not there yet, but with the incredible rate at which new technologies are moving into vehicles, investing in RFID now does not seem to make sense. The window of opportunity for RFID in vehicle shipping yards has closed. For now, we live with the ancient bar code. Soon, hopefully, this old work-horse will be replaced by “Sci-Fi” like communications within vehicles, some of which might be driving themselves.