Tools of the Trade

— April 10, 2007

Marty Mallick, director of RFID and mobile solutions at Sybase iAnywhere, spends his days thinking about the business development and strategy of RFID and mobile technologies. Mobile Enterprise caught up with the self-titled "technology evangelist" for a quick briefing on developments in RFID technology and the changes they're bringing to the supply chain and beyond.

MOBILE ENTERPRISE: There are so many types of, and features to, RFID these days. Which areas are Sybase focused on?

MARTY MALLICK: As a single company, it's not possible, as far as I'm concerned, to go out and build solutions in all of the possible areas where RFID could be utilized. So the approach we take is that we build the infrastructure and we recruit the partners--who are actually out there in these vertical markets, such as in the cold chain around perishable goods, in hospitals, in healthcare, government, etc. So we just focus on making sure we can enable the partners to be successful, and then they go out and in turn deploy this into various markets where they have that domain knowledge that they need to be successful.
That's what our new product, RFID Anywhere 3.0, is about. We've been seeing a lot of customer interest around location tracking in the RFID market, and 3.0 is to enable intelligent location tracking of data. -- In this release, we made significant device class additions to the product. One is active RFID technology.

ME: Active meaning that it can communicate with a WiFi network.

MM: There's a very basic way to describe the difference between passive and active. Passive has no battery in the tag, and active has a battery in the tag. And really there's no standard protocol that has to be used. So WiFi can be used, but people can just as easily use Bluetooth, or another proprietary protocol for the data transmission. With passive, the only way you get the data is the antenna sends out a signal, and then the tag reflects the data on the tag back to the antenna.

If you look at something like a highway toll system, [such as E-ZPass], it often has active RFID. So as you approach the toll booth, the battery ignites the little tag, and it starts sending out your information as a beacon and you can drive through the toll.

Another component is called RTLS, or real time location systems, and that's where tags can essentially utilize a WiFi network to do location tracking. They use triangulation, essentially, and they can get to within about 10 feet of the location of an asset.

ME: We hear about a lot of deployments with hospitals, for example, using RTLS to know where equipment is.

MM: Well, the main thing we've focused on in this release is a new component called our Location Information System. If we look at asset tracking today, it's exactly as you describe. If you look at a supply chain, you're not really doing location tracking, you're more doing, "Where are you within that supply chain." If your workers don't hit one of the points along the way, you don't actually know where they are. Whereas, when you talk about location tracking--what are the x and y coordinates of the location--that's really what you're talking about. So if in the hospital you need to find the defibrillator, you know which room it's in in the basement.

One of the things we see, if you look at hospitals as an example, is the cost of the RTLS tag itself is relatively expensive. You're typically looking at $25 to about $100 per tag, depending on the technology you're using and its various capabilities. Whereas if you look at passive RFID, the tags are like 25 cents. So what we see in a hospital environment is, "I can definitely put a $25 tag on a piece of cardiac equipment, but I cannot put a $25 or $50 or $100 tag on surgical instruments, because very quickly my costs are going to escalate beyond what I can justify."

One of the capabilities we provide is the ability to combine multiple means of data capture into a single system for asset tracking. So you can now start using some of the lower-cost tags, like a passive RFID tag, or even bar code technology, and be able to incorporate that as a location tracking mechanism within a combined system.

ME: So it both encourages the use of RFID and brings about an ROI faster.

MM: Absolutely. In some cases, for the lower-value goods, when customers already have some of this infrastructure in place, or they're already using bar codes, when they put this system in place, it's a given that the ROI is near instantaneous.

ME: Where else are you seeing interest?

MM: We have expertise and customer adoption in cold chain--the supply chain of perishable goods. Customers are seeing an ROI and really compelling benefits when they can start adding some context to the location data. For example, let's say I'm shipping a truckful of lettuce and the truck breaks down in New Mexico. If I can see that the lettuce was exposed to temperatures it shouldn't have been, I can make real-time decisions and say, "That's going to affect the shelf life of this lettuce, so let's not ship it to New England. Let's take it to a local retailer instead."

The Spanish Postal Service is also using RFID to increase the efficiency of its operations, and of course increase profits. And we have a retaurant customer using RFID Anywhere to reduce energy costs. There's all kinds of compelling uses if RFID technology out there.

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