No More Lost Tools: Ford and ThingMagic Team Up on RFID Tracking System for Truck Beds

Carpenters, contractors, plumbers, and construction foremen are usually as tough as the pickups they drive to work. Until they leave one of their tools behind at home or at a job site. Then they cry like babies.

Just kidding. But lost or forgotten tools are a serious nuisance for these workers. Ford knows, because it sent teams of researchers to follow them around. “One thing that came up time and time again was that people were traveling hours a day to get to their locations, and it was a catastrophic experience when they realized that they forgot a tool,” explains Yael Maguire, CTO at Cambridge, MA-based radio-frequency-identification (RFID) company ThingMagic. “Two or three times a year, workers would have to run over to Home Depot to buy a replacement tool rather than go all the way home. So Ford wondered if they could offer a lot of value to people by making it so that somehow the vehicle itself could tell you whether you have everything, and whether you were missing a particular tool.”

The answer turned out to be yes, they could. And with help from ThingMagic and DeWalt, the Baltimore-based maker of industrial tools, Ford yesterday announced an option for the 2009 F-150 pickup called “Tool Link from DeWalt”—an RFID-based system that scans the items placed in the truck bed and shows whether everything is accounted for on an in-dash computer display.

The Ford-DeWalt deal is a big win for ThingMagic, a small startup that’s been around since 2001 and has worked with big companies like Wal-Mart on using RFID tags to increase supply-chain efficiency, but has never put an RFID product directly onto the consumer market. “The fact that a big consumer company is really embracing this new type of RFID technology is really exciting for us,” says Maguire, who—as the rest of the ThingMagic team went west for the big unveiling of the Tool Link system at the Chicago Auto Show—was in the home office in Cambridge yesterday, busy fielding calls like mine.

ThingMagic LogoMaguire says the Ford partnership came about last year after the company approached him at the RFID World trade show, where he had just given a presentation on how to communicate with RFID tags in environments with lots of metal around. Coincidentally, that was exactly the problem Ford was pondering, after having noted several lost-tool catastrophes. “A truck bed can present a tough problem in terms of trying to read out information from RFID-tagged objects,” Maguire explains. The issue is that a truck’s metal body—not to mention all the tools piled into it—can create a mess of radio reflections, preventing the individual tags from powering up sufficiently to communicate. (Passive RFID tags like those normally attached to portable objects don’t have batteries, and run on power induced by the radio waves themselves.)

“They said, ‘Do you think this is possible?'” Maguire relates. “They had already talked to a bunch of companies and most of them had said no, it’s not possible. But we felt it would be a challenge worth investigating.”

Back in 2005, ThingMagic had partnered with Intel to develop a new chipset for an RFID reader that could get information back from tags faster, on less power. That chipset, the R1000, was ready last year, and when ThingMagic put it into a custom reader capable of running on vehicle battery power and tested it in an employee’s F-150, “We found from the outset that it was working really well,” says Maguire. All that was left was to find a supplier of indestructible, unremovable RFID tags and to work with DeWalt to put the reader itself into a ruggedized module that could withstand extremes of heat, cold, and vibration.

ThingMagic also worked with Ford and with Magneti Marelli, the maker of the in-dash computer, to create a software application that tracks objects RFID-tagged objects. Basically, the system allows a truck owner to enter a list of tools, along with a set of job profiles and the tools required for each type of job. “You say ‘Today I’m going to a particular job,’ and click on that job, and it will tell you if all the tools you entered for that job are actually there in the truck,” says Maguire.

It’s exactly the kind of problem where RFID technology excels. “In this case, we’re helping to answer a very simple question that is sometimes very hard to answer unless you are going to pay a ton of attention,” says Maguire. “And that is, are all of the things I want right here, right now?”

The Tool Link system that Ford announced yesterday is part of an innovative mobile-computing package called “Ford Work Solutions” that the company has assembled in an effort to maintain its status as the leading U.S. truckmaker. The other components include a GPS navigation system from Garmin, a voice-activated built-in phone powered by Sprint, a set of office-productivity applications that run on the Magneti Marelli computer, a fleet-tracking application for locating other company-owned trucks, and a system of cables and locking shackles designed by MasterLock to keep items in truck beds from mysteriously walking away. Work Solutions will be available as an optional feature on model-year 2009 Ford F-Series and E-Series pickups and on 2010 Transit Connect compact vans.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy