DAYTON, OH -- Advanced RFID technology developed at the University of Dayton Research Institute to help ensure the safety of aircraft will soon be used to help ensure the safety of food, pharmaceuticals, medical devices—and trains.
American Thermal Instruments of Moraine, OH, has licensed UDRI researcher Bob Kauffman's SMART (Status and Motion Activated Radiofrequency Tag) technology to develop and manufacture monitors that will report unsafe temperature changes in products as disparate as fruit and train wheels while they are in transit. Monitors for perishable items such as food and medicine will be packaged in shipping containers for transport from production facility to distribution center to store shelf; monitors for transportation applications will be attached to components whose controlled temperature is critical to the integrity of the vehicle. A simple handheld scanner, like those used at grocery stories, can be used at check points along the way to quickly and easily check for temperature issues without having to open packaging.
ATI president Randall Lane said he expects the new devices to be on the market within 18 months, if not sooner. Although he is not at liberty to share their names, Lane said major clients representing the restaurant and transportation industries are already on board to use the temperature monitors when they come off of the assembly line.
ATI was founded in 1980 to develop and manufacture mood rings, whose color variations are based on the wearer's body temperature, but quickly turned its focus to practical applications for temperature monitoring in health, food and chemicals, Lane said. ATI produced more than 30 million forehead thermometers in 2010 for clients such as Johnson and Johnson, but the company also specializes in devices that monitor products from originator to user, or "from farm to fork, as the industry saying goes," Lane said. That includes perishable foods such as fruit and vegetables as well as nonperishables such as medical devices and chemicals - all of which are at risk if exposed to temperatures outside their designated safe range.
"Temperature changes affect the taste, freshness appearance and viability of food products," Lane said. "Every hour that a case of lettuce spends in temperatures that are too high means one less day of shelf life, which is significant for a produce company that ships more than 7 million cases a year. But there are also instances where unsafe temperature fluctuations cause more than just expensive waste, they can be dangerous. For example, we monitor heart stents, which are made of metal. If a stent gets too hot in transit, it won't open up and work properly once it's been implanted. A case of vaccines worth millions of dollars can be rendered useless if they're allowed to warm up for even a brief period of time."
Without monitoring, there is no way to know if a product has been temporarily exposed to temperatures outside its safe range, Lane said, adding that a case of cheese that leaves the processing plant cold and arrives at a grocery store cold may still have been allowed to get warm at any transition point along the way.
ATI uses a variety of technologies to monitor products, including radiofrequency identification. But Kauffman's RFID technology appealed to Lane because SMART monitors can be produced at little cost, making them affordable to more customers—especially within the food industry, where profit margins are tight, Lane said.
Kauffman's technology deviates from traditional RFID technology in that a SMART sensor will only activate if it experiences a change in its normal operating status. For ATI's purposes, normal status will be a pre-programmed temperature range appropriate for the product being monitored. If the product and monitor experience temperatures outside the safe range, the monitor will "sound off" by emitting radio waves that will be picked up by a handheld scanner. As long as the product and tag remain within safe temperatures, the scanner will receive no signal from the tag.
Lane said ATI will immediately target food and railway safety. Train wheels that get too hot may have stopped turning or are indicative of other serious issues such as a failed bearing or locked brakes, any of which could cause derailment, he said. Near future targets include aerospace, security, sports equipment and composites, he added.
Kauffman, a distinguished research chemist at UDRI, developed SMART technology under funding from the FAA in response to the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 outside of New York. A member of the crash investigation team, Kauffman believes a frayed fuel-sensor wire likely played a significant role in the explosion that brought down the plane. He created a SMART clamp that will secure bundles of wires and send an alert signal if the clamp fails, putting the wires at risk. The technology, which has a patent pending, can also be used to detect and report hidden cracks, impact damage, corrosion and tampering of any number of products and devices, he said.