The pursuit of carrier wave signaling technology predates the first radio broadcast. Pulling voices and symphonies out of thin air was exotic technology one hundred years ago. Pulling robust data streams from tiny tags with the help of remote readers and scanners is similarly so today. Metrc is proud of the role it has played in bringing radio-frequency identification (RFID) to market and the role it continues to play in advancing new applications and future potential of this revolutionary technology.
The story of Metrc begins humbly enough in a University of Tampa dorm room belonging to Jeff Wells.
Outside of classes, he had been creating custom software for a seafood processing firm called Florida Sea, designing inventory and tracking systems to help run their business. Jeff founded Horizon Computer Systems in 1983, a year before he graduated.
Ernie Francise worked at Florida Sea, a company that provided seafood to restaurants all over the country. He remembers meeting Jeff and being immediately impressed by his humility and intelligence and pushed Jeff’s efforts deeper into the company’s inventory management operations. “He worked hard and fast and was doing things with software we’d never dreamed possible.”Summer 1989
Putting Programs to Work
Problem: How to track inventory without putting actual eyes on it?
One of the first problems Ernie tasked Jeff with was the loss of expensive product being “chimney stacked” in offsite cold source warehouses. High-end seafood product was being surrounded by pallets of inexpensive product and the expensive product was being lost. The challenge was to devise a means of identifying the pallets without having to physically unstack them; could they track inventory in a pallet without putting actual eyes on it?
For most of the next decade, Jeff honed his software development skills in building out inventory tracking, point of sale, supply chain management systems, and (etc. etc. something that conveys he was building and learning in ways that would eventually help Metrc) at Florida Sea. Ernie and his business partner sold their interest in (Florida Sea) to Swann, but a strong working relationship between he and Jeff had been set. They both knew auto inventorying and remote auto-identification demonstrated great promise. They resolved to start a business, taking portions of both their last names to create Franwell. It was 1993.Fall 1993
Narrowing the search for viable signaling technologies that would one day become RFID.
The founders of Franwell knew the signaling type of technology they were excited about didn’t yet exist, but they knew they were on to something, they set about finding partners in the academic community they could collaborate with. They eventually landed on Georgia Tech and knew a lot around what would become radio-frequency identification and signaling technologies because of that early engagement.
The goal was to develop a product that could provide better visibility into product shipments and receipts, including automatic identification, data collection, and traceability benefits to supply chain industries—particularly in fresh food—without having a visual line of sight on the product. Georgia Tech advised that it would take about $5 million to launch a product, which the young company would need to raise.Summer 1995
The dawn of the Internet Age and the coming gold rush.
For the better part of a year, Ernie and Jeff worked with Bill Paul, (necessary mention?) who they knew from legal work done at Florida Sea, and Mark Smith, who was a research PhD with the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). Mark had been doing a lot of work with the federal government and had developed a couple of key patents, a coding algorithm and also a design for a charge pump, which were early building blocks of RFID. (which eventually fell under the ownership of Matrix, selling for around $200 million when Motorola bought them out.) Does this need to be called out?
In the summer of 1995, Netscape launched its IPO, and the first dot.com gold rush was on. RFID was a complicated and still emerging technology—and one that pointedly had nothing to do with the internet. Georgia Tech had given Ernie and Jeff a price of around $5 million to develop a product, which we didn’t have and needed to raise. The investment environment for a company not engaged in the internet was challenging. Ernie and Jeff, both of whom were still working with Swann, decided to merge Horizon Computer Systems and Franwell to see what they could do with the software. During this time, Jeff hired a young programmer named John Stephens.Spring 1997
Theory and Practice
Chasing funding for a technology that was still, in many ways, theoretical.
In physics, backscatter is the reflection of waves or particles back in the direction they came. This is the basis of radar and it’s been researched and studied and refined in various ways for more than a century. Carrying retrievable data on backscatter is the basis of RFID. During an important call with a potential investor at a pivotal/critical time in Franwell’s history, an expert was brought in to analyze the RFID-based pitch Jeff and Ernie were making.
This expert said backscatter research had been tried since World War I and attempts to consistently and reliably pull data from it would never happen, that the physics weren’t there. “He couldn’t have been more wrong,” says Jeff, “and the proof is all around us: backscatter data collection is used millions of times all over the world every single day: it’s in farming and husbandry; theft prevention in retail’ and in electronic toll collection activating that little tag in your car.” But in the mid-90s it was still theoretical. And for a young company in need of funding, it was a brick wall.Fall 1999
Back to Basics
The birth of AGWARE and the search for a workable RFID prototype.
On the basis of frustrated attempts to fund an RFID prototype, Ernie and Jeff turned their attention to the development of an ERP/WMS (enterprise resource planning and warehouse management system) for the produce industry. The company refocused on software and the core programs they’d developed for growers, packers, shippers, road crop foods—again centered enhancing supply chain visibility.
Franwell launched AGWARE in 1999 and expanded its reputation as an adept company known for solving real world problems. Aspects of that system, which was built in the mid-90s, are still in use today. “Like the work we had done with Florida Sea, we kept running into issues that would be solved by a working RFID prototype,” says Jeff, “so it never completely went off our radar. More importantly, we continued to cultivate ties that would lead us to a solution.”Winter 2002
Hype and Opportunity
Big-box retail discovers the alluring promise of RFID and makes a big mistake.
Radio-frequency identification made a huge leap into common business parlance when executives at Walmart began advocating it as a game-changing solution. As Jeff and Ernie began revving up activities in the field again, they discovered a company called Matrix that looked to be getting close to where they were when they had shelved their RFID efforts several years prior. “We quickly realized that the things being talked about by Walmart and others were simply not possible.. It was an over-hyped and unrealistic take on then-current technology. They were attempting to squeeze a 15-year product-development cycle down to five: it wasn’t going to work.” And it didn’t. But Matrix was on the right track.
Leveraging recent knowledge about food supply chains, Franwell began seeking out new academic partners in the food arena. “We spoke to Marvin Brown at Fancy Farms and he told us the University of Florida had a post-harvest program. That started our work with the Center of Food Distribution and Retailing and our research around auto identification and RFID in the food arena.”Spring 2004
Real World Applications
Meeting the early architects of RFID and determining the way forward.
On or around 2004, Dale “Chap” Holland (correct?) introduced Ernie and Jeff to David Eagleson of Matrix. Franwell purchased a pilot system for $11K. “A couple of months later, Ernie got a call from their CFO asking what the check was for,” recalls Jeff. “We were the first company to buy something from them.” That check and that vote of confidence got Eagleson’s attention. They began attending classes to learn more about MDM and they met more people of interest.
In the meantime, Franwell turned its attention back to developing and fielding products incorporating advances in RFID development: working prototypes to create transparent supply chains, arriving at the compliance solution Genesis, Trace, and the Tote Portal (Worth explaining what these are? How much to unpack here?) Franwell also developed a conveyor tunnel that allowed a client to read RFID tags on items conveyed inside a shipping tote.Spring 2006
Where academics and business meet and theory becomes a pilot product and practice.
Newly allied with the University of Florida’s Center for Food Distribution and Retailing (CFDR), Franwell assisted in the creation of the center’s first-ever RFID lab. Co-directed by Dr. Jean-Pierre Emond and Dr. Jeff Brecht, the goal was to broadly study different supply chains and test out the impact new methods and technologies had on distribution efficiency. Franwell tested several different kinds of produce and packaging for RFID friendliness during this period, helping to inform several pilot programs.
One such initiative was with Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Florida along with Tanimura & Antle, A. Duda & Sons, and Del Monte Fresh Produce. The project proved the viability of using RFID pallet level tags and the EPC Global network for tracking produce shipments from the grower/supplier to the retailer’s warehouse. Completed in 2006, the project was featured in the cover article of “Integrated Solutions for Wireless Mobility and RFID” in the June 2006 issue.Spring 2007
Growth and Development
Building on the promise of a young technology and finding applications that make the most sense.
Franwell was soon working on several RFID-related projects, with NASCAR, Publix, Kroger, Huntsman, and exploring other opportunities through CDFR. Jeff set up early working groups at EPC global and together explored software applications, auto identification, and how these tied back and could support RFID.
“I told Stephen,” says Jeff, “there’s a deep corridor of doors to the left of us and a deep corridor of doors to the right of us, and one of those is going to open for us.”
Franwell narrowed its focus in 2007 to the supply chain industry with a particular interest in perishable and pharmaceutical products. The company also attempted to realign efforts around products that required special handling, added security, and that could be helped by a reliable method of track and trace.Spring 2010
Franwell puts CargoAware in the field — an RFID solution strong enough to fly.
Franwell’s RFID experience with fresh produce led to the development of a warehouse application called CargoAware, launching d a partnership with Air Canada Cargo. During the nearly decade-long partnership, Franwell designed an RFID, close to real-time solution that tracked movement of a shipment through the warehouse via strategically placed readers and diagnostic software that provided insight as to its content. Franwell continued to work with Air Canada Cargo until 2019.Winter 2010
The Start of Metrc
The beginning of Metrc and the start of cannabis regulation in the United States.
Eagleson hired a former colleague from Tyco named Scott Dunhill. The two had worked together at Symbol, through the sale of that company to Motorola. Ernie and Jeff had many conversations with Eagle and Scott during this period. Scott in particular was convinced that RFID had huge potential in manufacturing and that Motorola wasn’t pushing that line, so he went off on his own and started a company called Outlaw.
Scott worked on many proposals in this timeframe, looking at manufacturing supply chains. At some point, he was introduced to Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division or MMED. An agency in the state hired Scott as a consultant. He assembled an RFP for regulatory tracking of cannabis and Franwell was at the top of the list. Jeff was reluctant but Scott carefully took him through it. They decided that working with state governments was a buffer against accusations of illegality and worth exploring as a company.
It ended up being one of the first major wins for the company from a financial standpoint: a $1.9 million contract. Franwell won the RFP for seed-to-sale tracking system for regulated marijuana with the Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) in 2010 and began the project in late 2010.2014-Present
Franwell pushes past a pause and officially launches its track-and-trace solution.
In 2011 the Department of Revenue (DOR) put the project on hold because of funding issues. Franwell continued to work on the solution independently through 2011 and 2012. Mid-2013 the DOR reengaged with Franwell to complete the launch on January 1, 2014.
Franwell successfully completed the solution and launched on schedule, and the industry began reporting into Metrc in December 2013. During the initial 60-day implementation period, Franwell successfully registered over 1,000 users and provisioned over a million plant and package RFID tags.Today and Tomorrow
A glimpse of what’s coming and the promise of what’s in store.
Jeff knew early on that a lot of work had to be done on signal processing, which is very complicated. Without powered transmission in place, RFID was going to need a lot of iterative engineering improvement. “From where we sat when those conversations with Walmart were taking place to now, it’s been a 15-year timeframe and there’s been a lot of improvement.”
“It’s really only been the last four or five years where we’ve been continually on a path of steady improvement—even with the good work done with toll collection. There are groundbreaking developments on energy harvesting, signal processing, and monumental changes waiting in the wings that we will look to take advantage of. We’ve moved beyond the doors, at this point we’re deep into the landscape.”