Shipping container with a mind of its own
March 5, 2006 Radio frequency identification (RFID) of goods is currently revolutionising logistics. One practical application of the new technology is the Smart Box, a shipping container that can be located during transit and offers numerous other useful functions. One of the many applications for the new RFID tags is that of locating goods and containers in transit. German scientists have developed the “IFF Smart Box”, a container equipped with a scanning device that can check its contents by means of RFID. The data are forwarded to a small computer unit. A software combines them with the current geographical location determined by a GPS receiver. Various sensors can be integrated in the box, too, in order to measure parameters such as pressure, temperature or vibration. The information is transmitted to a database by mobile radio.
Logistics companies and customers can access the database via the Internet to inquire where their goods are at any given moment, whether the specified temperature is being observed or how serious vibrations have been during transport. RFID technology provides security, too: Customers can specify, for instance, which of their employees can open the door of the container when and where. The door will only open if the electronic lock receives an encoded signal from an authenticated transponder card.
The Smart Box is a prototype that IFF researchers have developed together with telematics specialists from ENAiKOON in Berlin. “We originally designed the container system to monitor the transport of valuable articles and expensive products,” says IFF department manager Klaus Richter. “There are a large number of other conceivable applications, however.” These might include parcel services that want to stop unauthorized people from entering the loading area, suppliers who need to make sure that the required number of parts reach the customer at a specific time, or suppliers of sensitive electronics who want to record the vibration level during transport.
“The Smart Box gives us better control over complete supply chains from the producer to the customer,” Richter sums up. “This makes it possible to respond to unforeseen events at short notice.” RFID-based logistics ultimately benefits everyone involved: Manufacturers can improve their inhouse material flow, suppliers can locate their goods at any time, and retailers and customers can be sure of receiving the product they ordered.