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RFID makes self-service equipment rental practical

October 18th, 2018
Speedy Services is the UK’s leading provider of equipment, rental and support services to a wide range of clients across the construction, infrastructure, industrial, rail, manufacturing and facilities management sectors – as well as to local trades and industry. Speedy has a network of over 320 depots across the country, from which equipment can be dispatched using one of 1,200 delivery vehicles, or directly collected by the customer.  

However, some of Speedy’s customers require a more specialized service – they wanted the greater flexibility of an ‘on-site’ depot that could rent tools on a pay-as-you-go basis by the hour to accommodate the schedules of their various crews. Speedy managed such customers by assigning an employee, and a stocked storage container and a delivery van to remain at the customer’s job site. Needless to say, dedicating a vehicle and staff member that might otherwise is serving multiple sites made the service costly for both Speedy and its customers.

The challenge

Seeking a more efficient way to serve such on-site customers, Speedy proposed to create a self-service equipment storage and rental system. Speedy’s developers envisioned an RFID-equipped mobile equipment ‘pod’ that could be transported on the back of a small delivery vehicle and maneuvered by forklift. The pod would be stocked with the specific tools and equipment required by that customer. Tools leaving or returning to the pod would be automatically tracked and rental fees assessed by means of embedded RFID tags and a UHF RFID fixed reader integrated in the pod. 

The solution 

Speedy contacted numerous tag manufacturers to request sample tags. Then, working with Codegate, Speedy began testing to find a combination of tags and readers that could function reliably in the dust and dirt of a construction site, where metal surfaces, liquids, radio-based communications, unshielded generators, and other RF interference sources are the rule rather than the exception.

A variety of UHF RFID tags were fitted onto or inside Speedy equipment. To properly tag some equipment, tag manufacturer Omni-ID developed new fixing techniques, including a zip-tie system to keep tags from moving or slipping in use or storage. The tag development process incorporated ATEX certification and HALT testing to ensure tags would meet or exceed shock and vibration standards for use in military or hazardous environments. 

RFID read performance was then tested in an anechoic chamber at Omni-ID’s UK base. After less-than-ideal results with other readers, the introduction of the FX9500 into the design increased read rates by ten times or more, ensuring reliable reads for every scan. The FX9500 features an IP53 ingress protection rating and an extremely rugged design, built to perform in extreme temperatures and dusty environments. The iterative design process and customer input ensured that the final system design exceeded the requirements of the dynamic and static load tests needed for Speedy’s customer environment. 

Proof of Concept

Once initial tests had demonstrated that RFID could provide reliable and accurate data capture even in a challenging environment, a pod unit was constructed by Codegate to demonstrate a proof of concept for the self-service system. Once the technology was refined, attention turned to making the unit self-contained in a ‘pod’ style, designing and building the prototype unit. The prototype was then also tested and improved before being shown to some of the largest construction companies in the UK for their buy‑in. Production was approved, and deployment of the first units was scheduled.  

Professional partnership

To handle such a project successfully, there is a need for a strong and visionary relationship between the involved partners to create the best solution for the customer.  

Zebra delivered the RFID hardware, consisting of Zebra FX9500 8-Port Industrial Fixed Reader, AN400 High- Performance Area Antenna and the AN480 Single Port Antenna. Omni-ID developed the RFID tags, e.g. for small portable electric and pneumatic hand tools the Prox Fi tag developed specifically for the Speedy e-Pod and Max SQ tags for larger electrical items and transformers with a plastic housing. 

Codegate developed custom software that talks the user through the process, using voice prompts to make the entire experience simple to follow. A custom control module was likewise designed and built by Codegate. Essentially the brain of the system, it integrates all the key electronics components including reader, GPRS router, computer, and digital I/O board.




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