Dow Brings GPS, RFID Together In Supply Chain Management

The chemical company has begun a 10-year program to deploy cutting-edge technologies that will help it track vehicles and items in its vast supply chain.
Dow Chemical has kicked off a decade-long supply chain program that will pull together sensor networks, global positioning systems, and auto-identification technologies to improve the way the company tracks materials both in transit and in warehouses.

Dow relies on trucks, trains, and ships to handle more than 2.5 million shipments to customers annually. About 20% of its products cross international borders.

A year ago, a committee started reassessing Dow's supply chain and recommended 450 projects. Fifty got the go-ahead in March, says Craig Casto, global lead for Dow's RFID, GPS, and auto-ID tech center.

This year, the company is focusing on container tracking, with an emphasis on using GPS technology to monitor train shipments. "Not only will we get updates [from the railroad] throughout the day, but [we'll be able to] on-demand ping the cars to determine their location," Casto says.

Dow pulls GPS data from tank trucks and railcars into a secure Web site that displays their locations. Later this year, Dow will expand the project by affixing RFID tags to cylinder containers and tanks transported on railcars.

Also this year, Dow plans to begin putting smart shelves in its warehouses where it stores finished goods and maintenance parts. Both products and parts will be fitted with RFID tags; readers in the shelves will sense when an item has been added or removed and automatically update inventory lists.

Warehousewide View
Dow has set out to build a mesh sensor network in a "construction lay-down yard"--a football field-sized area where it stores manufacturing materials. The company will use that network to create a grid-based virtual warehouse that will let employees track materials and parts in the lay-down yard from their PCs.

Dow joined the U.S. branch of RFID standards group EPCglobal last year when it deployed passive RFID tags on a product it supplies to Wal-Mart. Says Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, an industry group focused on auto-identification technology: "The chemical industry is a natural place where you will see supply chains implementing a mix of RFID and GPS" to improve security and product traceability.

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