RFID technology is opportunity for Wisconsin companies

RFID technology is opportunity for Wisconsin companies

As radio frequency identification (RFID) becomes increasingly widespread – moving out from behind the four walls of private companies that previously used it for their own purposes to become a cheaper, more available technology – it remains a highly fragmented industry with pockets of development virtually everywhere, says Prof. Raj Veeramani, director of the E-Business Consortium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
From a provider standpoint, the various levels of RFID applications are being addressed by a number of Wisconsin firms. Companies such as Red Prairie in Waukesha and Panatrack in Delafield write software that integrates RFID into warehouse management and retail inventory systems. Promega Corp., a Madison-based life sciences company, has RFID-related initiatives that include product storage and use-tracking. Smaller companies like Matrix Product Development in Sun Prairie, and I.D.ology in Eau Claire are involved in hardware applications for tags and readers. And still more, such as Kimberly-Clark Corp. in Neenah, are either including RFID as part of packaging or contemplating it because their customers demand it, or will shortly.
Some manufacturers in the Milwaukee area that are suppliers to some of the larger companies that require RFID are either incorporating it into packaging or looking into it, says Dave Haseman, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Business.
“Most of the activity right now is experimenting with it,” Haseman says. “They are not using the tag in their own production, but [some] are including it as part of their end products. They perceive it as a cost/benefit issue. They are also looking at how [RFID] might make their operation more productive.”
In the not-so-distant future, RFID tags are likely to become embedded as part of packaging rather than included as an add-on, Veeramani says.
“The expectation is that RFID will become embedded in plastics and corrugated packaging,” he says. “For the Wisconsin packaging industry, this has significant long-term implications.”

Currently, there is an effort to develop printed antennas using conductive ink, says Veeramani, who coordinates a statewide RFID industry work group with more than 40 participating companies. Printing would provide flexibility for custom-designed antennas. That creates an opportunity for Wisconsin printers to get into RFID through the development of printed tags, he says.
Another Wisconsin industry that could benefit is the paper industry, he says. The underlying material to which the tag is applied will become critical, as the properties of the paper affect the performance of the tag. Because Wisconsin has a number of companies that produce specialty papers, it may create opportunities for the paper industry that are specially suited for creating RFID labels, Veeramani says.
As the cost of embedding RFID continues to come down, Wisconsin packaging companies are likely to shift from a wait-and-see mode into an active effort to add value to their customers, Veeramani adds.
Following is a sampling of four Wisconsin companies actively engaged in some aspect of RFID.
Kimberly-Clark Corp.
Kimberly-Clark is a pioneer in the adoption and implementation of RFID technology. In May 2004, the former Wisconsin-based consumer-packaged goods manufacturer tagged and shipped cases and pallets of two of its products to Wal-Mart’s Sanger, Texas, distribution facility during a successful live test of radio-frequency identification technology.
According to a published report, Kimberly-Clark has been preparing for RFID longer than most, joining the Auto-ID Center – which at the time was overseeing much of RFID standards – in 2001. It now participates in EPC Global Inc., a joint venture between EAN International and the Uniform Code Council that’s working to define RFID standards. Last year, the Auto-ID Center handed over RFID standards development to EPC Global.
In July, Kimberly-Clark began formal testing of Generation 2 RFID hardware at its dedicated RFID research lab in Neenah. Generation 2 is the new higher RFID standard currently replacing the previous means of communicating between tags and readers The Generation 2 hardware provides a universal solution to RFID technology on a global basis, replacing numerous and incompatible systems with one system used worldwide.
The hardware tested included tags, readers, printers, and applicators. The tests will allow the company to determine which hardware is the most compatible with its conveyor, packing, logistics and shipping systems.
“Generation 2 RFID hardware has advanced greatly over the past few months, providing increased ranges in reading product tags, as well as a more consistent read rate of pallets and cases,” said Mike O’Shea, director of Kimberly-Clark’s Auto-ID Sensing Technologies. “We are one of the few end-user companies that have the ability to thoroughly test this new generation of hardware in a real-world environment. It gives us the ability to determine which Generation 2 hardware will best serve Kimberly-Clark globally – whether installed in North America, Asia-Pacific or Europe.”
In mid-September, Kimberly-Clark announced a partnership with TrueDemand Software, Inc., a pioneer in the development of RFID-enabled enterprise applications. Through that partnership, Kimberly-Clark will seek to create new ways to predict and reduce retail out-of-stock situations, provide new and more responsive replenishment models and enable continuous replenishment capability.
O’Shea says RFID has the potential to deliver on real-time supply chains, because RFID reads can occur more frequently and can kick off information-sharing immediately between retailers and suppliers. TrueDemand’s strategy for exploiting inventory visibility between manufacturers and retailers fits in with Kimberly-Clark’s vision of an RFID-enabled consumer-driven value chain, O’Shea said.
ABC Computers
Waupaca-based ABC Computers is helping another Wisconsin firm become compliant with two of its largest customers, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense. ABC is also using RFID solutions to help Links Snacks Inc., of Minong, realize internal efficiencies.
See previous WTN coverage of Links Snacks Inc.
With headquarters in northern Wisconsin, the maker of Jack Link’s beef jerky has five manufacturing facilities, a U.S. distribution center, and is a leading producer in the beef jerky meat snacks category. The initial RFID rollout has taken place at the Minong plant.
“They had really never done anything with bar coding for supply chain management,” says George Britts, president of ABC Computers. “In working with them, they realized they were going to forced to be compliant, so they looked for internal areas where they could get some return on equity. We had a good relationship with them already, and with our ties to Microsoft, it made them a good candidate to work with them on the middleware, in the early stages.”
The middleware component is the data handler, Britt says. It resides in the computer, and listens to all of the RFID devices. That information is extracted and placed into another database.
Thanks to RFID, Jack Link’s now has the ability to track its beef raw material through the entire plant from the time it enters the processing facility.
“We know from the times the raw materials goes in which container it comes in. We keep track of the lots of beef, so that we know which lots of beef, so that the lot number can be put on a package,” Britts says. “At the same time, we are using that same type of information, how many pounds go into a process and how much goes out, so you can calculate loss and yield.”
Running in a pilot mode for over a year, deployment of RFID-enabled pallets of Jack Link’s meat snack products to Wal-Mart is expected to happen in early 2006, he adds.
“We were pretty much an early adopter,” Britts says of ABC’s RFID consultancy. “We did a lot of self-training, and it kind of evolved. As RFID has become more widely adopted, we are starting to get more calls for RFID solutions.”
Right now, RFID is a small part of ABC’s business; less than 10 percent of annual revenues. Britts expects it to escalate fairly quickly as the industry matures.
“As major retailers get into it, it will be pushed down the supply chain, so, people will do it,” he says. “So, we are looking at it to be a larger piece going forward.”

Image courtesy of I.D.ology

I.D.ology is an Eau Claire-based RFID and data collection company serving the livestock industry. I.D.ology has developed its own circuit boards and tag readers, and is working with both the beef and dairy industries for maintaining databases. The company has an alliance with an offshore firm to produce RFID ear tags.
“Our specialty is the readers, but, we have partnered up so that we have a pretty comprehensive service,” says CEO Bob Kleemeier, whose firm has served the livestock industry for the last 10 years. “We are probably one of the first in the state to offer this particular technology.”
I.D.ology’s reader has received technical approval in Quebec, and by the CCIA which spans Canada. It is being put to use in dairies and by cattlemen, as well as by universities, brand inspectors and truckers from California and Montana, through Texas to New York.
After I.D.ology’s ISO-Cane Reader was named one of the Top 10 New Products in agriculture for 2005 at California’s World Ag Expo in early February, Kleemeier said that numerous organizations started to incorporate it into their operations. Both the new LightningROD and the ISO-Cane facilitate the rapid collection of tracking and management information on large numbers of animals for the USDA and individual operators. I.D.ology’s hand-held readers are complemented by large stationary readers for automatic collection of cow identifications as a herd moves through an alleyway. For the dairy industry, it also makes a small, fixed halo reader for use in milk stalls to read the identity of each cow and correlate the identity with the amount of milk the cow is producing. Those readers can help to rapidly pinpoint the source of any animal disease for national security as well as provide vital management information to save producers time and money.
“We have dairy herds that we have worked with for nine to10 years, and we have calculated a reduction of $10 per year per head of cattle on vet bills,” Kleemeier says. “You can save quite a bit of money doing that. So, it all adds up to a more economic way to do business. But, it requires a bit of a shift in people’s thinking.”
By 2009, it will be mandatory for animals entering commerce to be identified. Government officials will want to know when an animal enters commerce and when it leaves the farm on a truck to go anywhere. It will be necessary to have the ID number of that animal, where it’s raised and where it’s going. That information will be entered into a number of large databases. The underlying reason is to be able to locate any animal that has been associated with an animal that might have become sick.
“So, if there is any sort of contagious disease, they know which other animals to be looking at to keep them out of the feed chain,” Kleemeier says. “They have set up these requirements so that they know not just where the animal was born, and what packing plant it was slaughtered at, but everywhere else in between like in a feed yard. This is supply chain management, but it is really focused on homeland security and food supply security. Everyone will have more detailed information about the individual animals involved.
“The year 2009 may seem a long way off, but, there’s a lot of people that need to do a lot of learning of what is involved,” Kleemeier says. “You’re talking about a whole industry that hasn’t done this sort of thing before.”
With the advent of RFID technology, brand inspectors will eventually become a thing of the past, Kleemeier adds.
Matrix Development Co.
Matrix Development Co. is a Sun Prairie company with three employees and a 20-year background in RFID technology, according to founder and CEO Ron Pulvermacher. Matrix is developing a bi-directional tag that can communicate with other tags via a 900 mhz transponder with an ultra low-power microprocessor and a battery.
The bi-directional tag is intended primarily to track people coming and going into a building, and is designed for a security-conscious business. Or, it can be used to track trucks in a shipping yard, or all the equipment in a rental place. It serves a niche where passive RFID tags don’t, Pulvermacher says. It’s long-range, and bi-directional, and it can go into a low-power, sleep mode after the message is received.
“The original application was to track cars coming into a parking lot to notify people in the building that a car is present,” Pulvermacher says. “The tags are also able to track people, and people in cars. If a car has a tag, like an I-pass, and people have a tag on them, you can know who is in the car.”
Currently, others are selling these tags, which are about the size of a hockey puck, for about $50. Depending on the size of the battery used, a double-A lithium battery can achieve five years life.
“We have developed it on our own, and we intend to sell it is a product,” Pulvermacher says. “Right now, we are working out the software.”
There are other applications for Matrix’s bi-directional tag, including converting it for use in ocean-going shipping containers. The new ISO standard calls for a light sensor, temperature, humidity and vibration. The ISO standard for ocean-going containers calls for 433 mhz tag, which Matrix’s tag can be converted to, along with the inclusion of a GPS port and a sensor port. This allows the ability to measure temperature, humidity and vibration, Pulvermacher says. A door sensor for tamper-resistance on an ocean-going container can also be incorporated.
“RFID could be a very large part of our business,” Pulvermacher adds. “We have a lot of different technologies that we have worked on, and we think RFID will become the largest part.”
See previous WTN coverage on RFID:
Tommy Thompson to get RFID implant
Farmers explore technology at Wisconsin event
Laying the foundation for RFID

John Rondy is a correspondent based in Milwaukee. He can be reached at jrondy@wistechnology.com.