Engineered For Success: Turkish Immigrant Designs Futuristic Tracking Devices In Polk County

When Dilek Dagdelen Uysal thinks outside the box, she's thinking about real boxes: boxes piled high on warehouse pallets; boxes shipped across town and around the globe; boxes containing precious cargo that must be tracked and meticulously accounted for every step of the way.

The packages might contain pharmaceuticals, food supplements or other perishable items that warrant a high-tech form of inventory control known as RFID - Radio Frequency Identification. Ah, but don't get Uysal started on these Space Age bar codes.

"I have a video," she offers. "Would you like to see?"

With that, the young Turkish engineer breaks out her laptop and demonstrates just how she went about building a better mousetrap – in this case, a device that is expected to revolutionize 21st Century packaging and inventory control.

Uysal (pronounced yoo-SAUL), who turns 30 next month, is the lead engineer, designer and project manager for a hands-free RFID reader being developed by Lakeland-based Franwell, Inc.

The Turkish-born engineer has been tinkering with the idea of a device that would replace the hand-held scanners, currently used to "read" RFID-tagged merchandise, since her post-grad days at the University of Florida.

Uysal, who received a Bachelor of Industrial Design in her native Ankara, earned double master's degrees in food science and packaging science at UF, graduating in 2007 with a 4.0 grade point average.

"I came to Gainesville to visit my older sister," she says. "I thought, 'I love this university and I want to be here.' "

UF didn't have a grad program for packaging design, her first choice, so she majored in food science. Her husband, Ismail, joined her in Gainesville, where he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering.

Her master's thesis centered on RFID in the pharmaceutical industry, where inventory control and security are particularly critical. The project resulted in a patented container – a see-through plastic tote box – that allows tagged items inside to be read without opening it.

Partnering For Benefit Of All

The project was funded by Franwell as part of the company's partnership with the UF Research Center for Food Distribution and Retailing.

Franwell ended up buying Uysal's patent on the pharmaceutical tote, and participated in the development and patent of her second co-invention: the new hands-free RFID reader, which is about to go into mass production.

"She works round-the-clock on it. It's her baby," says Terri Crawford, the company's chief operating officer.

For the Uysals, Franwell is a family affair, with Ismail currently working on another UF/Franwell project designed to track pre-packaged troop meals for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Franwell, named after co-founders Ernie Francise and Jeff Wells, started out in 1993 as a research and development firm. By 1999, it was branching out into commercial applications and in 2004, the company decided it was time to partner with academia.

"We wanted to establish a relationship with UF," Crawford says. The company is an associate member of the university's food distribution center and helps fund research – mostly by supplying equipment and resources.

The center was then operated by Jean Pierre Edmond, who recently was hired away from UF to run the new USF Polytechnic at the university's Lakeland campus.

That puts the USF center within 8 minutes of Franwell's headquarters. The company expects to maintain its relationship with both schools.

"We made it work in Gainesville, but it will probably allow us to work on more projects (with USF) because we don't have to factor in travel," Crawford says.

Franwell currently employs 13 people at its Lakeland headquarters and expects to add seven to nine more over the next year, says Crawford.  

Meanwhile, Uysal labors to deliver the product conceived at UF and nurtured at Franwell, where she was hired in 2008 as a senior engineer following a post-grad internship with the company.

"We're just thrilled with her abilities," Crawford says.

Combining Two Tasks Into One

Uysal wanted to develop a reader that workers could wear while moving boxes from one place to another, freeing up both hands for lifting and positioning packages. The idea was to combine two tasks into one.

She first considered a design that incorporated the reader into a glove, but ultimately settled on a device that straps onto a worker's sleeve and automatically inventories the RFID tags as the worker goes about the routine business of moving boxes.

Uysal videotaped a number of demonstrations, timing a worker performing the same task with a hand-held reader and then wearing the sleeve device. Those wearing the sleeve accomplished the same thing in about half the time.

The device worn on the sleeve has a number of advantages, she said. The hand-held readers currently rely on a linear beam. The worker often must locate the tag to scan it. The sleeve reader, on the other hand, uses a circular beam and can pick up the RFID tag from a much wider range.

"I had to design some of the internal components myself because I couldn't find them in the market," Uysal says.  

The first sleeve reader prototype was a finalist for "Best in Show" at the 2009 RFID Journal LIVE! trade show. A re-tooled model that is set for production in the coming weeks also made the final cut for "Best in Show" at the 2010 convention in April in Orlando.

"For a small company like ours to make the top 10 is huge," says Crawford. "We didn't win, but there was a really huge interest in our product."

Several major corporations at the trade show expressed interest in selling and marketing the device, she adds.

Meanwhile, Franwell is poised to launch the new readers with an initial production run of 1,000 devices. In June, Air Canada Cargo will begin a pilot project, using a custom application prepared by the company.

"They loved the application," Uysal says.

Not only is the sleeve reader expected to increase efficiency in the world of cargo, warehousing and high-tech inventory control, it is substantially less expensive, she says. A hand-held RFID reader costs $5,000. The sleeve reader is expected to cost less than  $1,500.

Right now, RFID is used mainly at the case and pallet level, she says. Her ultimate goal is to place the radio frequency tags on individual items inside the boxes – but that may take a while.

"Tags aren't cheap right now, so you can't replace the bar codes." Not yet. But the little engineer with big ideas is already thinking inside the box to figure it out.

Jan Hollingsworth is a freelance writer working out of Valrico. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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