By Stephen Barlas, Contributing Editor, RFIDOperations
Warren Buffett is reputed to be one of the smartest investors in the United States. So maybe it’s no surprise that Shaw Industries, America’s leading carpet manufacturer and a subsidiary of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is the first company in its industry to invest in RFID technology.
The company started testing RFID housings in the fourth quarter of 2004, according to David Milligan, a systems engineer at Dalton, Ga.-based Shaw. The housings—a heavy-duty composite shell protecting an RFID inlay—are manufactured by a small company called EmbedTech Industries of Raymond, Maine, which says it’s the only company in the United States encapsulating RFID inlays in three-dimensional plastic housings via an injection molding machine.
Shaw needs heavy-duty protection for its RFID inlays—lamination wouldn’t do—because the carpet manufacturing process attacks them like ducks in a shooting gallery. “Injection molded inlays stand up to the chemicals used in carpet manufacturing when laminated inlays would not,” explains John Kendall, president of EmbedTech. As flats of carpet move through a Shaw plant, they are dyed, treated with Teflon and washed and dried several times. Water pressure and heat can be intense.
Shaw will start using the EmbedTech housings at all of its 30 carpet manufacturing plants once the pilot is complete. “But we still have a fair amount to do before the pilot is finished,” Milligan cautions. Shaw is apparently the only company in the industry unrolling RFID applications. It’s so new to the industry that a spokeswoman for the Carpet & Rug Institute trade group didn’t even know what RFID stood for.
The RFID housing is attached to the carpet as it is unrolled and sewn to another flat stretch of carpet. The entire train then moves through a number of processing stations, where the tag’s unique serial number is read and associated with information in a database that stores all the variables related to that specific roll of carpet, such as what color it should be dyed and the correct dryer temperature, among other things.
In the conventional process, each “flat” in the train proceeds through processing accompanied by a detailed sheet (sometimes sheets) of paper with instructions for operators. “There is a lot of information on those sheets,” Milligan says, “and the operators can get their eyes crossed and make mistakes. Not only will we eliminate those mistakes, we can cut our costs by eliminating the operators altogether.”
Milligram says that Shaw talked with other companies about supplying injection-molded RFID inlays. “But EmbedTech was the only supplier we felt comfortable with,” he says. “They have experience and have had good results. We didn’t want to go with someone who is just trying it out.”
Injection-molded, three-dimensional housings for RFID inlays have both aesthetic, functional and durability advantages over conventional laminated tags and cards, which are manufactured by many companies. Texas Instruments, for example, laminates its 13 MHz Tag-it inlays within PVC to make RFID access control cards.