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SA electronics companies profile: SACO Systems
20 April 2005, News

SACO Systems, based in Midrand, is part of the JSE-listed Reunert group and it specialises in access control, time and attendance as well as asset tracking. The company was established in 1976 to address the problem of finding a solution to access control and time and attendance in the huge mining industry. Initially providing mines with such systems, based initially around the mini-computers of that era, SACO has continued to develop and upgrade its systems as technology continued to evolve.

SACO currently offers four products, these being SACO-Track (asset tracking), SACO-Time (time and attendance), SACO-Access (access control) with the optional SACO-Monitor (realtime CCTV and alarm monitoring). SACO's success has been driven by the fact that the company was an early adopter of RFID technology.

In terms of the original mining application the system would have to be able to cope with a very complex system of shifts and restricted access. SACO-Access is used in sites which vary from 30 to 60 000 badge holders. RFID technology is used to read from and write to the badge. Access can be controlled by zone and time of day. Anti-passback to prevent fraudulent entry is a standard feature and standard reports include late arrivals, early leavers and absentees listed by department or work group. The contactless smartcards are ideal for access control, providing 100% readability and virtually zero reader maintenance. While usually connected through a LAN, the readers can function autonomously offline and store up to 2000 transactions for upload once communications have been restored. The cards can also be used for cafeteria management for meal purchases and other point of sale transactions can be carried out in the same way with limits set in terms of expenditure.

SACO-Monitor is a fully integrated solution to facility surveillance and combines movement monitoring with on-screen digital video monitoring. The system is event-driven so that constant operator monitoring is not required. Alarm events alert the operator to the type of alarm and its location so that appropriate action can be taken. A complete logging capability is provided so that event-driven images can be archived for later retrieval. The operator can call up images of a specific area and remote control of the camera pan and tilt is possible.

SACO-Time is an add-on module to the access control system and provides the user with a comprehensive time management system with automated interface to payroll software. This automatically takes care of complicated shifts and flexitime operations. A standard management reporting system is offered but this can easily be interfaced to allow generation of customised reports.

While SACO has been highly successful in access control and time and attendance applications, its major breakthrough was the local development of an RFID-based tracking system in the early 1990s. During 1996 one of Britain's largest breweries, Scottish Courage, was looking for a system that could tag, track, and trace its inventory of some two million beer kegs where shrinkage was costing the company some £6 million a year. This was a result of the fact that UK breweries never charged customers for kegs thus there was no incentive to return them. The brewery had already scoured Europe for such a system and a US-based company had failed to develop a workable system. Within the short period of six weeks SACO had proved that its system would do the job and this was followed up by a contract to install a pilot system. After successfully completing this pilot installation, the local company was awarded a follow up contract in 1998 to install the system throughout the company's six breweries and 30 distribution depots, covering the two million kegs. In addition 800 delivery trucks were provided with tracking equipment in the form of portable readers.

Besides virtually eliminating shrinkage, the system has provided other major benefits to the brewery. In the UK the mass of beer in a keg has to be a certain minimum value but as the kegs vary in weight by up to 2 kg the brewery was overfilling. With the tag providing the exact tare weight of the individual barrel, filling tolerances could be tightened. If a bad brew slips through quality control the brewery knows immediately where the kegs are and can recall them. The tags also identify which filling station the keg came through and if there is a fault here the station can be immediately pinpointed. Another major advantage is that audit teams can check kegs at pubs and can determine those that are past their 'best sell date'. This improves the reputation of the brand in terms of consistency, a major selling point in a country that consumes huge amounts of beer.

In describing the roll-out of the project a Scottish Courage spokesman indicated that bar coding had been tried but readability was a problem, no historical data was generated and the bar codes themselves were easy to deface. While at that time RFID was still an emerging technology, SACO provided the solution with the tag permanently attached to the keg. The spokesman indicated that although there were a number of suppliers in Europe who could provide components for such a system, no single vendor was immediately able to integrate such an RFID tracking system. Through SACO, Scottish Courage found the solution and it became a technological first within the brewing industry. The portable data terminals SACO developed are capable of reading both conventional bar codes and RFID tags, easing the logistics of the changeover from one technology to another.

In South Africa the ostrich farming industry has adopted RFID tracking for its birds, but the other major local application is in SACO's traditional field of mining. SACO has added gas cylinders and miners' lamps to the assets it has permanently tagged. The miner's lamp has other benefits as it ensures that the miner must present the lamp to the reader otherwise he will be denied access to the working area. In a further extension of the technology the gas detectors carried by miners are also being tagged and the test and calibration data for the device is stored on the tag. Access will again be denied if the unit has not been tested within a prescribed period and as with the lamps the SACO system is contributing to greater levels of security. Using the lamp tags there is, in fact, no reason why miners themselves could not be tracked in the mine itself.

Although developed for the mining industry, the flexibility of the SACO solution allows it to be used in virtually any industry and other functions such as fuel management can be added. The potential for RFID solutions in other areas such as credit control and tracking other assets such as books, DVDs and CDs is huge, and SACO Systems intends to remain a major player in this field.

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