RFID and the tire industry
In tires, radio-frequency identification (RFID) is used for inventory tracking and management. RFID consists of a tiny radio transmitter (high technology transponder) and chip that are placed inside a tire or on the outside sidewall. This transponder/chip assembly can be interrogated by a scanner that contacts it using the correct frequency and protocol.
But RFID is much, much more. There are so many applications for this technology that it is staggering. Let’s review the buzz words, history and other applications using RFID technology.
1. Transponder: A transponder is an electronic device that produces a response when it receives a radio-frequency interrogation. In aviation, aircraft have transponders to assist in identifying them on radar and on aircraft collision-avoidance systems.
Some people also call them a chip, but they are far more complicated than a simple chip.
In the tire industry, transponders are used to identify a tire and are either built into the tire before vulcanization or are placed inside or outside on the sidewall using heat or a special glue after vulcanization.
2. Scanner: A scanner is a radio transmitter and receiver that can send a signal to the closest transponder and gain access by using the correct frequency and protocol. Once access is obtained, it interrogates the transponder, capturing all the imbedded information it contains.
Tire scanners also can capture other information such as tread depth, tire pressure and tire temperature if the hardware and software are capable.
Getting the information received from the transponder to a computer database requires a personal digital assistant (PDA) that is set up to handle this information, as well as some sort of wireless or cable system that sends the information to a PDA.
3. PDA: PDA are versatile handheld computers. PDAs are also known as small computers or palmtop computers.
PDAs have many uses, including calculation, sending and receiving e-mails, video recording, word processing and scanning bar codes. Newer PDAs also have both color screens and audio capabilities, enabling them to be used as mobile phones (Smartphones), Web browsers or portable media players. Many PDAs can access the Internet, intranets or extranets via Wi-Fi or Wireless Wide-Area Networks (WWANs). Many PDAs employ touch screen technology.
4. Bluetooth technology: Bluetooth wireless technology is a short-range communications technology intended to replace the cables connecting portable and/or fixed devices while maintaining high levels of security. The key features of Bluetooth technology are robustness, low power and low cost.
The Bluetooth specification defines a uniform structure for a wide range of devices to connect and communicate with each other.
RFID isn’t anything new. It has been around since the end of World War II when transponders were developed by the United States and Great Britain to tell the good guys from the bad guys in air battles.
Many of us use a little plastic thing on our key chain (transponder) to pay for gas, groceries and other things. It identifies us, knows all our credit information and may call the shots on purchases, just like swiping a credit card.
A transponder works only when it is “squawked” or contacted by a master reader/scanner using a specific radio frequency.
Other applications of RFID are interesting and becoming commonplace.
On the Eastern Seaboard from Florida through Massachusetts, there is the EZ-Pass System that is transponder-based. It uses RFID technology to charge drivers for road and bridge tolls.
The same system is now being used in Northern California , and it looks like its use will spread quickly through that state. New Jersey alone has 1.7 million vehicles using its system, and New York has far more.
With the EZ-Pass System, the transponder is mounted inside the windshield above the line of sight and the master reader/scanner is mounted where the vehicles drive through to be tolled. They scan the transponder information and charge that person’s account. They are vehicle-specific and should not be changed between vehicles, especially commercial vehicles.
In warehouses, loaded pallets can be fitted with a small RFID transponder, and the forklift operator can identify it from 15 feet away or more.
This not only speeds up operations, but also can eliminate shipping mistakes because the operator only will be able to pick up pallets sent to his work tablet from the company’s computer. And those pallets only will be accepted by the correct trailer or railroad car.
The bottom line: RFID is here to stay, and has many practical applications in many fields.
Tire industry applications
By now, you should be asking how this applies to you, the independent tire dealer.
At the present time, it will have little impact unless you are a commercial tire dealer providing cradle-to-grave service for fleets that use medium-duty truck or construction, agricultural and mining tires.
If you are doing commercial tire work, you need to look into the benefits of RFID right away.
Large tire warehouse/distributors also can use RFID technology to control inventory for warehousing and shipping, while retail dealers can use it for the same reasons.
For strictly retail tire dealers, it is probably not worth spending too much money on scanners. You can wait a couple of years until all tires are manufactured with the transponders installed.
In the world of tires, there are three things that keep RFID applications from gaining more users in the marketplace. They are, in reverse order of importance: cost of the RFID chip, cost of the RFID reader and who is willing to make the commitment to database millions of tires from cradle-to-grave.
Additionally, increasingly more information is being required from the scanner/reader. Critical information such as existing tread depth, air pressure and tire temperature can give the commercial dealer far better insight into the actual environment in which the fleet’s tires live and how they can optimize performance and lower tire costs.
(This data can be captured manually, but it is comparatively more labor intensive.)
First let’s deal with the cost of the transponder. When Advanced ID Corp., a major tire industry supplier of these products, started marketing this technology, it estimated transponders for tires would cost between $3 and $4 each.
According to Michael McGrail, director of sales, Americas, for Advanced ID, “Costs have now actually moved to the point where, if production numbers are met, they can cost as little as 40 cents each.” (That production level is 10 million units in a single year.)
Although that number might seem like an impossible goal, with OEM tire manufacturers and retreaders worldwide installing them on retail and commercial tires, their use on aircraft tires, and fleets installing them inside their own tires after manufacture, that number is viable.
If each transponder costs only 40 cents, why isn’t everyone using the technology right now? It can’t be cost; on an 18 wheeler it is just $7.20 times the number of trucks in the fleet.
Advanced ID readers are broken down into two groups: simple scanner/readers and Fast Check probes that give more information to a PDA.
A basic Advanced ID scanner/reader is priced close to $300, while a more full-featured unit, the RF 5000, is about $800. Multiply that expense by your number of fleet service technicians, and you will have the initial cost to you.
If you want your techs to have all the bells and whistles, you will have a Bluetooth radio technology interface between the transponder and scanner to the PDA. These units include Fast Check software to help the inspector and are really effective, but more costly.
They are capable of managing vehicle number, tire number, tread depth and tire pressure. However, the tire tech will have to use an air chuck and then enter the tire pressure into the scanner to obtain air pressure data.
Using Bluetooth technology, this data can be sent to the PDA first and then can be sent to a laptop or desktop (or to the Internet, if you have a Smartphone PDA), and can be printed in a standardized report.
In a typical truck tire dealership, each service truck/tire tech would have a unit at all times.
For medium truck tires there is a scanner/reader that will fit between tires on dual applications. This unit is a simple scanner. The Fast Check scanner is an added cost, but you can use the air chuck on it and it will automatically enter the air pressure data.
The Fast Check system can provide customers with more useful information. You will need both a scanner and Fast Check probe for medium truck tires. If you are retreading, you would want a scanner or two in the retread shop also.
For OTR, agricultural or mining tire dealers, each tire service truck would need to be equipped with a scanner and/or Fast Check. The air chuck is also connected to this device so it will enter the air pressure information along with the other data at the same time. With Bluetooth technology, it would write everything into the tire tech’s PDA.
It delivers tire identification, tire tread depth and even tire temperature, which is especially important in OTR tire operations.
There are many dealers who want this technology right now. But, where should the data go and who should control it?
In a commercial tire situation, the data will be maintained by the tire dealer and the fleet, in most cases. But in a retail environment, the database storage and management issue becomes more complicated.
If the tire manufacturers build tires with transponders installed before the tires are vulcanized, all a tire dealer would need to do is scan the tires sold and mounted on a vehicle and match them with buyer name and contact information, and maybe the vehicle and mileage at the time of installation.
The technology also supplies useful information when tires come off a vehicle and go to the scrap pile, in which case it will remove them from the database.
That will be everything needed for recall information. But, how does that information get to a national database that can be used for recalls? Who controls all that data, and how can we be sure it doesn’t become another Big Brother issue like the OBD II information in our vehicles?
Advanced ID’s McGrail says, “We are willing to develop and maintain that information for millions of tires on millions of vehicles.”
The company is capable of doing it. Advanced ID presently maintains the national registry of pets using its scanner and transponder technology, which is used to identify lost and/or stolen pets. It also gives veterinarians the animal’s owner information.
These transponders are inserted under the skin of animals such as horses, dogs, cats, llamas, pigs and rabbits, plus even parrots and other more exotic pets.
Who pays the cost?
Advanced ID knows how to develop and manage a national database, and that would solve the problem of who maintains it.
But who will pay for this? The dealer -- for every tire he enters? The tire manufacturers -- for every tire they produce? Other organizations that want this information for their own purposes? Who else will be allowed to gain access?
Marketers would find the information very useful in determining preferences and market share across each part of the nation.
Manufacturers would love to get mileage information (starting and ending) that would tell them how to improve the product. Insurance companies would love to get this information, especially mileage, for each vehicle VIN so they could cross-check it with mileage driven claims of their insured.
Even the government would love to have access because it would give it a lot of private information that is simply none of its business.
These issues need to be determined, and until they are, I, personally, can’t see any retail dealer or manufacturer getting on board with a national database.
In actuality, the entire process of scanning and gathering data is simple, far simpler than any manual system, and it will be much more accurate by limiting how much the tire technician has to do.
If the system operates correctly, the following would be a typical medium tire fleet inspection using both the Fast Check and scanner.
* The tire tech would come to the vehicle with the scanner and Fast Check probe in hand, plus a PDA.
* The first thing he would do is enter the name of the fleet, the truck or trailer number and the first tire ID number via the RFID scanner. The scanner is designed so it works between dual mounted tires.
* Using the Fast Check with a Bluetooth probe, he would then measure tire tread depth and tire pressure, automatically sending this information to the PDA. The Fast Check probe operates between the tread blocks or ribs.
* With a simple click, he would then do the next tire until all 18 or so tires are scanned. If OTR, mining or agricultural tires are being scanned, the OTR Fast Check system includes an integral RFID scanner so only one tool is required in addition to the PDA.
The technician would do this for each tire on the vehicle and then service the next truck and/or trailer. Once the entire fleet of vehicles at this location is completely inspected, he could download the information from his PDA to his laptop, either using Bluetooth technology or attaching it via cable.
Once the information is in a computer, reports can be printed. They include graphic representations of various factors, such as tire brands, mileage and tire pressure, etc.
The tire tech also could check and verify all tires in the scrap pile, as well as any inventory the fleet has at the time.
A retail dealer is faced with a different situation. The dealer can use a simple scanner/reader when checking in tires, when looking for a specific tire and when mounting or demounting tires with the RFID transponder installed.
If he adds the customer contact info and mileage, he can control his own database.
Tire techs at the retail location would read the tire transponder when installing or removing tires. And if he’s just inspecting it while the tire is still mounted for an annual rotation or change to winter tires, that information and mileage also could be integrated into the database.
Using this system is far easier than understanding the technology itself. It is a giant leap forward, but it is not without perils and issues, as mentioned.
Keep posted to Modern Tire Dealer, as this topic will be revisited when news from OE tire manufacturers, Advanced ID or other suppliers making a commitment to the tire industry becomes available.
Matt Strong is a 30-plus year tire and automotive industry veteran. Throughout his career, he has managed marketing activities for a global tire manufacturer, operated a large tire retail/wholesale business, worked in tire and automotive public relations, competed in numerous drag and road racing events, and has contributed a number of articles to Modern Tire Dealer magazine.