Cargo Chat: Has RFID’s time finally arrived at cargo facilities?

Mike MoreyRadio frequency identification (RFID) is hardly a cutting-edge technology. The system of scanning and identifying objects through the use of radio waves has roots that reach back to World War II. Since then, it’s been used in countless tracking systems to monitor the movement of trucks and goods.

In the air cargo world, adoption of RFID has been slow to develop. However, a new track-and-trace system developed by Franwell, Inc., and View Technologies is proving that you don’t always need new technology to be innovative. The Franwell system, called CargoAware, now being rolled out at several Air Canada Cargo facilities, uses standard RFID antennas to collect data passively on individual items and ULD containers moving through cargo facilities, and record the movements in real time.

To find out the latest on the CargoAware system, Air Cargo World spoke with Michael Morey, director of advanced cargo solutions for Franwell, who has been involved with the Canadian project for more than a decade – first for Air Canada and then later for the manufacturer.

Q: How did you first get involved with RFID?

I was formerly the director of operational strategy at Air Canada Cargo. When we were approached by Franwell about 10 years ago, they wanted to conduct pilots and test different methods of using the solution in the cargo environment. After a number of years of testing, we figured this is actually a viable solution. We could market this as an actual production system, not just as an Air Canada solution, which is when Franwell decided to formally create a product that we now call CargoAware. From that point, about a year ago, I moved over to Franwell to share my expertise from a carrier’s perspective.

Q: What problems does CargoAware seek to solve?

Piece-level tracking in real time is a major challenge for all carriers. When done manually, this creates errors and leads to a lot of non-value-added work. The real return on investment comes in the form of asset tracking in warehouses and cargo facilities. But beyond track and trace, the system collects so much data, you can discover inefficiencies in areas you never considered, such as poor forklift deployment, bad floorplan configuration and time-consuming methods in buildup. Once the infrastructure is there, we can pick up just about anything – and the technology doesn’t lie. When you show people this kind of stuff visually they just say, “Wow, we never even realized that’s what we’re actually doing.”

Q: How does the system work?

When the goods are accepted, customers print a label with a readable barcode. We make our labels look exactly the same, with the only exception being that we add a little chip with information relative to that piece, which can be read by antennas in the ceiling. CargoAware is passive, so the antennas just track the movements of any RFID chips that move through a facility in three dimensions. With the data on the chip, we know where it’s been and we can message it back to the customers’ warehouse to tell them that the goods have been seen on the export dock, and that they are now in the storage area awaiting buildup. And we also develop rules – for instance, if you tender goods for a specific flight time, and we have not seen these goods yet at the buildup by a certain deadline, then the system will send out a warning. These are all things that we can do with the real-time tracking.

Q: What is the next step for CargoAware at Air Canada?

Right now the full installation at Air Canada is done in Montreal and at Frankfurt. And we have since installed the system in Boston, New York JFK and Chicago. The rollout is proceeding at a pretty aggressive pace now, with about two to three station installations per week for the next several months. We intend to pretty much be completed with Air Canada by the end of November, with Toronto being the last one. Being the hub, 75 to 80 percent of Air Canada’s traffic goes through there. So that’s going to be a big one.

Q: Are there any plans to bring the system to other carriers?

Yes, that will be my job. They call me the “bear trapper” – I go out and trap the bears, bring them home, and then our guys skin ’em. Without naming names, there are several clients that are doing formal site assessments. There are also a number of facilities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia that are being built brand new, and we’ve been asked for input so that they can build the solution into the new facilities rather than retrofit. I expect by year’s end, we should have some of these at a stage where they’re ready to make a public commitment.

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