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Radio-frequency identification

RFID transmitters are about the size of a grain of rice (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain)

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are tiny electronic devices that can be embedded into products, parts, tools and other items so that they can be tracked as they move through the production and into the supply chain.

When used in conjunction with strategically-placed RFID reader devices, they can provide precise, real-time information about the locations and movements of these items. This data can then be used to track physical assets sitting in warehouses, products that are in-transit to customers, or consumer  items even after they arrive at their end user destination.

How RFID Works

An RFID tag is about the size of a grain of rice, but it has a miniature radio antenna and microchip that gives it a unique 64-or 96-bit code, called an EPC identifier. This acts as a sort of a digital bar code that can be read by electronic readers as the tag — and the item it is embedded into — move through a production line, distribution center, supply chain and beyond.

Each time the item embedded with the RFID tag passes through a verification point, the RF reader senses the tag’s EPC if the tag has an active battery. But even if the battery is dead or the tag doesn’t have a battery at all, the reader emits radio frequency waves that induce a current within the tag’s antenna so that the EPC can be read.

Unlike a bar code reader, RF readers require no line of sight to read the RPC, which means RFID tags embedded inside cases of products or on pallets can be read without opening the container or breaking down the pallet.

The reader captures not only the EPC, but the time and precise location of the reading. This data can then be instantly transmitted to a database tracking the item’s location at all times.

What to Do with the Data

This information is useful to know because it can tell the item’s manufacturer a lot of different things, including:

  • What the item is, as well as when and where it was manufactured
  • Where the item came from and where it was going
  • How long it takes the item to pass between RF readers
  • Who was responsible for moving the item

RF readers are compact enough to be placed anywhere. Typically, they are installed near doors, on docks, and at various points throughout the production line, warehouse and distribution center. They also can be placed on delivery trucks equipped with GPS.

Plus, they can be placed in retail settings or even in public places so that manufacturers can track the movement of their products even after they arrive in the hands of consumers.

Future Shock

That means that the applications for RFID technology go beyond simply tracking and data collecting.

For example, if somebody buys a certain type of coat that has been embedded with an RFID tag, readers placed in retail stores can sense when the person wearing that coat is nearby.

When the EPC is sensed, the reader can instantly connect with the item’s database to determine when the coat was manufactured, how it made its way through the supply chain, and possibly even the identity of the person who ultimately bought it.

This data can then be used to build a personalized promotional message specifically aimed at that customer. This message can then be projected on a nearby in-store screens that the person is passing by. Or it can even be sent as an instant message to the person’s smart phone, for instance, to remind them that it’s time to get a new coat.


The truck maker Ryder has developed a new type of truck cabin that is specifically designed to facilitate the unique needs of female truck drivers.

The new “female-friendly vehicle package” includes features such as adjustable seat belt shoulder straps, improved placement of dashboard gauges, adjusted height and placement of grab handles, and better access to oil and coolant checks and fill ports.

Optional features include a hood lift/closure assistance mechanism, fifth-wheel configurations with lower pull pressures to open in the locking mechanism, automatic landing-gear operators for trailers, and a special security system for sleeper cabs.

Scott Perry, Ryder’s VP for supply chain management and global fuel products, said there are more woman truck drivers on the roads than ever before. Yet most big rigs are designed for larger men. This new package gives women an alternative.

“This custom truck package is not only more ergonomically friendly to women, but will also benefit other drivers with the same types of needs,” Perry said in a company news release. “Our intent is to not only help attract more women to the industry, but also to make the vehicles easier and safer for a broader range of drivers to operate. As an industry leader, we feel a responsibility to leverage our influence and find creative ways to deal with the professional truck driver shortage.”


Information Technology

Photo Courtesy Marko Puusaar via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: In this week’s Thursday Feature, we take a look at a growing trend in post-secondary education among supply chain and material handling professionals: Distance learning.

Back in 2012, Beth Wachowiak had a choice to make.

Six years earlier, she graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in supply chain management, which she was able to parlay into a supply chain job at the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, in Neenah, Wisconsin.

For the first couple of years, Wachowiak’s career was on fire. She got several promotions and enjoyed her job, her career and the company where she worked.

But Wachowiak realized that if she wanted to keep moving upward, she would need to have a master’s degree.

“My decision was based on a desire for both professional and personal growth,” Wachowiak told Inbound Logistics. “I want to hold a leadership role eventually, and I feel a master’s degree will give me part of what I need to get there — as well as help separate me from the crowd.”


The problem was that the closest university that offered a master’s program in supply chain management was hundreds of miles away.

“Kimberly-Clark is in Wisconsin, so I had few school options,” Wachowiak said. “To attend a traditional university would require a five-hour drive each weekend for four to five years.”

That option was too cumbersome, but leaving her job and putting her career on hold to advance her education also wasn’t an option.

Instead, Wachowiak enrolled in Michigan State’s Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program, which allowed her to take most of her classes online from the comfort of her own home. About one-third of the classes are held at the school’s campus in East Lansing, Michigan.

For Wachowiak, it was a happy compromise.

“I was able to complete my degree in 19 months, while working full time,” she said.

Growing Popularity of Distance Learning

Wachowiak is one of millions of working people who are opting to work toward post-secondary degrees online.

According to a report issued recently by Ambient Insight, an estimated 25 million students in the US will be taking online courses by the end of this year. And the number of students who go the traditional route — taking classes while living on campus full-time — is rapidly shrinking, from 14.4 million in 2010 to only 4.1 million in 2015, according to the report, “The U.S. Market for Self-Paced eLearning Products and Services: 2010 – 2015 Forecast and Analysis.”

Many of these students are people in the supply chain and material handling industry who don’t have time to put their careers on hold or can’t afford to walk away from their jobs to go back to school.

Online course offer more flexibility for people with active careers. They can choose to attend live, streaming classes or completely independent study that they can do when they are able.

Some distance learning degree programs — such as MSU’s — require students to attend a combination of in-person and online classes. And they use chat rooms, online forums, social media and other web-based platforms to interact with instructors and other students.

New Challenges

Nancy M. Taylor is the director of MSU’s Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program. She said that while distance learning is often more convenient for people with busy lives and active careers, it’s definitely not easy.

“On-campus and online learning each present unique challenges,” Taylor said. “When students are on campus, the challenge is the workload. Classes run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 11 days. It’s tiring and all-encompassing. The trade-off is that students obtain a lot of credits in that short time.

“The online portion is also challenging because it demands students stay committed to the work despite outside pressures such as career and family,” she said.

The typical student in MSU’s master’s program already has spent some time in the supply chain industry. Most are older than 30 and many are married and already have families. So the traditional approach to getting a graduate degree — moving close to campus and attending classes for a number of years until the course work is completed — is impractical.

Instead, to accommodate the needs of these unique types of students, MSU doles out online course work in 30-day increments, with each assignment due at the end of each month.

“Setting monthly schedules helps students manage the workload without getting overwhelmed,” said Taylor.

Keeping Connected

For Wachowiak, one of the biggest benefits of the MSU program was that it included the on-campus component, which enabled her to meet other students in the program and interact personally with the professors she would later be seeing online.

Plus, because she was actively working within the industry, Wachowiak — and her fellow online students –were able to take real-world experiences into the classroom. That’s something that wouldn’t really be possible in a purely academic environment in which students only went to school.

“Talking about issues we were dealing with on the job enriched our class discussions,” she said.

The Changing Face of Education

For Wachowiak and millions of others, the trend toward distance learning has opened up opportunities that didn’t exist just a few years ago. And it offers supply chain and material handling professionals the chance to earn advanced degrees so they can improve their chances of getting promoted.

“Take the time to read the posts and join the exchange,” she said. “Otherwise it’s easy to put your education on the back burner and focus instead on work and more urgent needs.”



File:W-S 137 trenching section 11 (6515860923).jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An Chicago area sewer and water contractor has been banned by a federal court from engaging in trenching, excavation, construction or related work ever again after repeatedly exposing workers to hazardous trenching conditions.

The unusual ruling came after the contractor — Mike Neri, 79, of Elk Grove Village, Illinois — refused to pay fines totaling more than $110,000 in connection with six safety violations resulting from an investigation by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

According to investigators, on several occasions Neri failed to prevent workers from cave-ins during trenching operations. Two of the violations were called “willful” because they were committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement or with plain indifference to worker safety and health, according to an OSHA news release.

Willful violations can carry a fine of up to $70,000, depending on the size of the company. Neri’s excavation business had been cited for similar violations in 2009 and 2011. The company shut down in 2013, according to court records.

Violators Will Be Prosecuted

Nick Walters, regional administrator for OSHA’s Chicago office, said the court’s decision lets other contractors know that they have to play by the rules or face the consequences.

“The court has sent a clear message that Mike Neri, like all businesses, has a legal and moral responsibility to protect workers on the job,” Walters said. “OSHA will pursue all avenues to ensure employers, such as Neri, who are recalcitrant and continue to violate safety standards, learn that the law will be upheld.”

OSHA said it pursued the lifetime ban against Neri because he had been uncooperative and refused to pay fines. He refused to acknowledge trenching violations had occurred, even after agency investigators presented him with photographic evidence.

In 2014, he was held in a federal jail for 23 days for contempt, but was eventually released after posting a personal recognizance bond.

Not Allowed to Own Equipment

The Feb. 10 ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit required Neri to pay $110,440 in fines and banned him from “owning, leaving, obtaining or in any way possession any excavation equipment for use in construction.”

Neri’s attorney, Mary Higgins Judge, told the Chicago Tribune that the contractor had dug ditches at construction sites for more than 45 years and only occasionally hired others to help him when jobs were too big for him to handle alone. She said Neri was arrested shortly suffering a heart attack and that the court orders he was accused of ignoring had never been properly served and were returned to the court undelivered.

Rules for Trenching

OSHA trenching standards require all excavation deeper than 5 feet to be protected against collapse.

Soil is extremely heavy and can be fast moving if not supported. As single cubic foot of soil weighs about 114 pounds and a cubic yard weighs about 1.5 tons, or about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle.

A worker buried under only a few feet of soil can be crushed by so much pressure that the lungs can’t expand and suffocation can occur in as little a three minutes. Soil that is wetter and heavier can crush the body in just a few seconds.

Protective systems reduce the likelihood of soil cave-ins that can fall or roll into an excavation. They also are used to support nearby structures to prevent collapse caused by the excavation.



Forget about “Goodbye, Moon” or “The Poky Little Puppy”. Children today want more action and excitement in their bedtime stories.

Perhaps that’s why publishers this month are offering two new children’s books about an unlikely subject: Over the road trucking.

“My Auntie Susan Drives a Big Truck” is the latest children’s book by author and former truck driver Susan Burton. It’s based n the hundreds of postcards and letters she wrote to her “Trucker Buddy” pen pals in elementary schools, as well as to her nieces and nephews, during her 30 year career behind the wheel of a big rig. The book can be purchased on her website,, or on

If that doesn’t put your children to sleep, you can try “Papa Dough Hauls Strawberries & Smiles”, which was published by the Tennessee  Trucking  Foundation. The book tells the story of a professional truck driver and his young son and was written to help educate children and their families about the important role trucks play in everyday life.

It can be purchased at A portion of the proceeds to toward the Trucking Moves America Forward campaign.




Here is a special sneak preview of some of the stories you will find this week on the Bahrns blog:

  • Supply chain and material handling professionals who want to further their career with an advanced degree now have a new option that doesn’t require them to spend hours in the classroom. We’ll tell you what it is …
  • RFID tags are rice granule-sized transmitters that can be used to track items as they pass through the supply chain. We’ll tell you how they work and what they could mean for your business …
  • A new cargo container terminal that is being built outside Toronto could take some of the pressure off the North American intermodal industry. And we’ll tell you why it comes not a moment too soon …

    Plus, a Chicago area contractor banned for life from the construction industry, two new children’s books about over the road truckers, and a new type of trucking cab that is specifically designed for women drivers. All this and much, much more can be found this week on the Bahrns blog … so stay tuned!

Maersk shipping containers

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (In the public domain)

The Canadian National railroad’s recent announcement that it will invest $250 million in a new intermodal rail yard outside of  Toronto is just the latest indicator that the challenges that have hobbled intermodal in recent months are finally clearing up.

While the CN only announced plans to build the new facility Wednesday and the project still needs to be reviewed by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, already the intermodal industry already is anticipating that it will provide much needed relief to the overburdened North American transportation system.

Weather Problems and West Coast Labor Issues

Over the past two years, intermodal has struggled to keep up with increased demand and higher shipper expectations. But the severe winter of 2013-14 — as well as this past winter’s follow-up one-two punch — put the brakes on the industry’s ability to achieve its ambitious operating standards.

On top of that, a nine-month labor dispute that pitted union dockworkers against West Coast port owners only compounded slower train velocities, volume backups, and long dwell times. While both parties finally agreed to a new five-year contract on February 20, the intermodal system was slowed down even further by lingering backups at the ports caused cargo containers to line up offshore for days waiting for berths to unload their cargo.

Things got so bad that billionaire Warren Buffett took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the performance record of his own railroad — the BNSF Railway Company — in part because of its inability to efficiently operate its intermodal yards outside Chicago and elsewhere.

A Marked Increase in Performance

But now it appears that intermodal finally has turned a corner– not only because of CN’s major investment in its infrastructure, but also because intermodal’s service quality is improving.

Larry Gross, senior analyst for the intermodal consulting firm FTR, said things began to turn around in late November.

“Poor service conditions reached their nadir last fall but then really began to improve the week after Thanksgiving,” Gross told Logistics Management. “There has been a significant improvement to the point where year-over-year comparisons are turning positive.”

Still, Gross said he and other industry observers aren’t completely convinced that intermodal has found its way out of the woods completely.

“You really need to look back two years for more accurate comparisons instead of year over year,” he said. “We still have significant distance to go and I would say that the Western railroads have seen a little bit more of the gains than the Eastern ones. But when you look at the weather situation, that stands to reason.”

One of the reasons intermodal’s performance is improving is because carriers didn’t slow down their operations over the holidays as they normally do. Instead, this year they sped them up by hiring new workers and investing in more equipment.

“The crews take some time to train and we are now starting to see some of the benefit of that,” said Gross. “They were just able to turn the corner and get ahead of things. And once network velocity starts to tick up, then it self-generates more resources because locomotive productivity and crew productivity both improve. So success breeds success and there are now more crews moving faster and they can do more work.”


Automated Guided Vehicles

Photo courtesy of Carmenter (via Wikimedia Commons)

The German forklift manufacture Linde Material Handling announced that it has entered into a strategic partnership with a French robotics company to begin developing a new line of robotic industrial trucks.

Linde — which is headquartered in Aschaffenburg, Germany– will work with the robitics firm Balyo to build a new line of self-driving vehicles under the umbrella of “Linde Robotics”, according to a Linde news release released last week.

More Companies Want Robotic Vehicles

The agreement comes in response to an increased demand for automated industrial trucks, both in Europe and elsewhere, said Christopher Lautray, Linde’s chief sales officer.

“Our aim is to extend our range of automation solutions to offer our customers solutions having different levels of complexity,” Lautray said. “With Balyo, we were able to persuade the technology leader in robotics for material handling equipment to cooperate exclusively with us so that we can now combines the best of both worlds.”

Linde unveiled the first products it developed jointly with Balyo at last month’s LogiMAT trade show in Stuttgart. But that those are only going to be the tip of the iceberg.

“Our plan is to integrate Balyo’s innovative technology into most of our products step by step, whilst utilizing synergies in production and sales at the same time,” said Lautray. “At the LogiMAT trade show, we presented the first jointly developed products, with more to follow soon.”

A German-French Alliance

For  Balyo — which has its headquarters in Moissy-Cramayel, France — joining forces with Linde offered the robotics firm the opportunity to expand its customer base, according to Fabien Bardinet, the company’s CEO.

“Linde MH is the European market leader in industrial trucks, offering great product knowledge and densely knit consulting and service network,” Bardinet said. “For us, Balyo is the ideal partner to create the most advanced automated trucks to serve best out mutual customers. At Balyo, we produce a unique driving system for materials handling. Together with Linde MH, we offer tailored solutions to help our customers optimize their in-house material flows and achieve major cost savings.”

Robots that Can ‘See’ and ‘Think’

Unlike earlier generation automated guided vehicles, the new Linde/Balyo trucks don’t rely on laser reflectors, tracks built into the floor, or on magnets to navigate their way through warehouses and manufacturing facility. These high tech AGVs use embedded autonomous laser-assisted technology that can “see” the walls, racks and columns as they move across the floor.

This simplifies the installation process. First, the warehouse where the vehicles will be used is mapped. That map is then converted into a two-dimensional image which is downloaded into the AGV’s “brain”.

The warehouse routes are then defined and the robot missions are assigned. Using lasers, a computer, and the digitized map, the AGV can then move around the facility on its own in real time without human direction.

The robots are also programmed to automatically stop if an unexpected object gets in its way, then restart after the obstacle has been removed and the route is clear again.



Jane Whitley-Grant admits that as a child she was a little different from the other girls growing up in Sheffield, England.

“As a little girl growing up, I vividly remember my Dad driving us to the south coast of England for summer holidays,” she recalls. “When we stopped at motorway service stations, for some reason I was always drawn to wanting to look around the heavy haulage parking area and stand on the foot of the bridge watching the trucks thunder by beneath me.”

This experience was the beginning of a lifelong love affair between Jane and trucks. She dreamed of being a long-haul trucker one day and even went so far as to get her HGV license. But, sadly, it was an unrequited love.

“As it often happens in life, fate takes you in other directions and it never happened,” she told the website Hub4.

While Jane may have learned to live without the love of her life, her other love interest —her husband, George — had other plans.

When an acquaintance of his, Derren “Digger” Heath, told George that his trucking company was buying a new rig, George asked if he would be willing to take along a very special passenger on the inaugural voyage.

And on her 50th birthday, Jane finally got to take the ride of a lifetime.

“I can honestly say that it was one of the best days in my life and I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity and experience,” she said after making the trip from Middlesbrough to Sheffield. “It was great chatting to Digger throughout the journey and the DAF unit and trailer is truly awesome and a thing of beauty as far as I’m concerned!”



Editor’s Note: In this week’s Thursday Feature, we travel to South America to visit a busy Argentinean port where the workers are the bosses.

File:San Lorenzo-North Terminals.JPG

The Port of San Lorenzo (Photo courtesy of Claudio Elias via Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain).

At the San Lorenzo port near the city of Rosaria — Argentina’s second largest city — ships pull up to the dock 24 hours per day where they are loaded with enormous mountains of wheat flour, soybeans, corn and other food products.

While many people in the northern hemisphere may have never heard of the port — or the Paraná River on which it stands — it’s Argentina’s busiest export facilities, handling an astonishing 85% of the nation’s raw food products, as well as edible oil, petrochemicals and ceramics.

With a series of port terminals stretching 31 miles along the river’s coastline, the port is home to nearly 1,000 workers who keep it running 24 hours per day. Last year, more than 6.2 million tons of products passed through the port. No wonder it is sometimes referred to as “the breadbasket of the world.”

‘Workers Over Profits’

Argentina is no longer a leftist country. And the military junta that ruled the South American nation with an iron fist is long gone. Today, the nation of more than 42 million people is presided over by the democratically elected president Christina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Still, the reverbations of socialism can still be felt, even in the port of San Lorenzo.

The port is owned by the General San Martin Port Workers’ Cooperative, which was founded by Herme Juárez in 1969.

Juarez, who still runs the workers’ cooperative, said operations at the facility put the safety and benefit of the workers before business concerns.

“There are many occupational hazards in dock work, but ‘people over profit’ is a rule by which any decisions are made, particularly with regard to safety,” Juarez told the website Hub4.

Argentina en Wikiviajes.svg

Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Up until 1996, ships at the port were loaded by hand. Workers using shovels fed grain, flour and other food products into vast conveyors. But this was dangerous work, according to Pedro Fydrizswski, a worker at the dock. Since then, wheel loaders and other heavy equipment has been used to move the food products more safely.

“We use the machines to push the flour through a grille in the floor on to a conveyor belt which takes it to the boat,” he said. “The job used to be dangerous because the towering mountains of tightly packed flour could have been sitting there for as long as a month and is prone to loosen unexpectedly, causing an avalanche of flour on to the machines and workers. Incorporation of the wheel loaders has reduced accidents by 95%.”

A single warehouse at the port can contain up to 180,000 tons of food products that are piled into massive mounds more than 100 feet high.

Operators increase safety even further by attaching crane extensions on to the wheel loaders. These are then used to push the products from a distance into the grilles that feed the massive conveyors, so operators don’t have to get as close to the towering mountains of grain, wheat and corn.

Profits Go Back to the People

Increasing safety through the use of more than 79 Volvo wheel loaders and other trucks used at the port has increased both the speed at which materials can be loaded onto barges and the profits that the workers’ cooperative earns.

“Due to the speed at which we can now load the boats, we are saving our clients hours of time,” Juárez said. “We have achieved everything we have with Volvo. But obviously the Volvos don’t drive themselves.  They are operated by people.”

The workers’ group uses some of the money to fund social programs and community outreach projects.

It also recently paid for a new emergency rescue center at the port, which has been equipped with brand new helicopters, ambulance boats and land ambulances. The center, which is specifically designed to respond to industrial accidents within the massive port facility, is the first of its kind in Latin America.

The Town that Works

The port at San Lorenzo is the lifeblood of this part of Argentina. It lies near the country’s northeast border with Uruguay, nearly 200 miles upriver from Buenos Aires.

“The town moves at the rhythm that the port dictates,” said Juárez. “The port plays such an important role in the local community.”

But it’s not all work and no play at the facility. During last year’s end of the year celebrations, to mark the port’s loading a record 6.3 million tons of goods, the workers’ cooperative loaded the buckets of its biggest wheel loaders with ice and bottles of champagne and allowed workers to help themselves.

“It’s a privilege to work with General San Martin Port Workers’ Cooperative,” said Gustavo Casas, Volvo’s key accounts manager for Argentina. “With its vision and prioritization of its workers, the cooperative is an ideal partner for  Volvo CE.”