8 Takes on RFID

— April 10, 2007

RFID likely first entered the mainstream consciousness in 2003, when Wal-Mart mandated that its top 100 suppliers be RFID proficient by January 2005. The retailer's goal was to improve the on-shelf availability of its products through better inventory tracking, and by early 2006 InfoWorld reported that the retailer had already seen ROI, and RFID-tagged out-of-stock items were being replenished three times faster than before.

Since that mandate, RFID technology and its purposes have evolved considerably. RFID is still an efficiency-improving inventory tool, but with the introduction of "active RFID," a tag with a battery built in, that inventory data is now also being pared with location awareness. To further highlight this flexible technology and the numerous vertical industries that are benefitting from it, we've put together a sampling of deployments and developments. As with many still-developing technologies, some end users are citing cost as a deterrent for adoption. That's an obstacle likely to soon be overcome--or quickly justified with proven ROI figures. We suspect that this is one technology that has only begun to reveal its possibilities.

TRANSPORTATION - Faster Delivery
An increase in business at Canadian National (CN) railway's freight transportation terminal in Brampton, Ontario, proved to be a mixed blessing: revenues were up but so was traffic congestion. And the surge in traffic congestion intensified the problems the railway had with keeping track of its chassis--the wheeled frames used to haul large containers of cargo. Those problems ended when CN switched from a manual system of recording chassis identification numbers to a solution using rugged Cargo Tags from Symbol Technologies. Able to withstand the harsh Canadian climate, the tags contain identification numbers and can be read at distances of up to 40 feet, which saves workers from having to read each container I.D. individually and record the data by hand. The solution has cut loading and unloading times for each chassis from seven days to four.

DEFENSE - Asset Tracking
The U.S. National Guard has turned to RFID technology to keep better tabs on equipment and supplies. It purchased 54 Portable Deployment Kits (PDKs) from Savi Technology to track supplies in its armories and in the field. The $4.6 million contract calls for Savi to supply the National Guard with 5,400 active RFID tags and 120 mobile handheld readers. The suitcase-sized PDKs integrate several automatic identification and data collection technologies, including bar codes, active RFID and GPS location with satellite communications. The PDKs can communicate with the Department of Defense's RFID cargo tracking network.

PORTS/FREIGHT - Supply Chain Management
NYK Logistics--the third-party logistics provider to Target stores--uses an active RFID and rules-based yard management system from WhereNet to manage more than 70,000 inbound ocean freight containers and 45,000 outbound trailers from its Long Beach, Calif., facility. The WhereNet solution provides instant information on the location of every container, trailer and hostler (the little trucks used to move containers); NYK Logistics now knows the instant a container is opened; and ocean-to-road times have been optimized. The company reached ROI in less than nine months, and additional benefits have included: a reduction in the time drivers spend on site, from two hours to less than 20 minutes ; daily through- put of the yard has increased 38 percent in the peak season; warehouse productivity has increased 20 percent, and costs associated with inventory and manual yard searches have been eliminated by 100 percent.

SALES - Improved Data
Ever stood around a car dealership waiting for the key to a car you'd like to drive? At Bob Lewis Automotive dealerships in San Jose and Newark, Calif., a solution called KeyWhere attaches to each car a small box with an RFID card slot, a keypad and a small drawer for a key. By swiping a personal RFID card into the reader and typing in a PIN, an employee can instantly access the key, improving both customer service and sales. Additionally, RFID inside the keys makes them easy to locate, and managers always know who had the key last. And because the data is communicated via a Firetide mesh networking solution to the dealership's database, managers can better track inventory and use real-time information to make strategic pricing decisions about the least-driven cars.

HEALTHCARE - Location Tracking
InfoLogix RFID technology systems are based on active RFID technology, where wireless tags contain battery power that enables them to transmit signals to WiFi networks and automatically identify, track and monitor people, assets and vehicles. Hospitals, which have constantly changing patient rosters, staff that are always on the move and vast amounts of expensive equipment, are perfect candidates for real-time location tracking solutions, and Florida Hospital, University of Colorado Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center are all InfoLogix customers. Having instant and accurate information about the location of patients, staff and equipment helps care givers to improve patient care, reduce wasted inventory and theft, and maximize the utilization of equipment.

STATE GOVERNMENT - Traffic Flow Monitoring
The Empire State is turning to a higher power for help in monitoring traffic. Researchers at the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are testing a portable solar-powered RFID unit that could monitor traffic flow by reading EZ Pass tags on passing cars. Called mGate, the RFID unit connects to a laptop computer via USB cable and contains batteries charged by a solar panel. When positioned along a roadside, the unit's laptop sends encrypted tag identification, a timestamp and reader location through a wireless connection to a server at Rensselaer. Researchers hope the system can eventually be used to figure out how long it takes traffic to get from one installed RFID reader to another.

RUGGED DEPLOYMENTS - Multiple Use
The Small Rigid Tag from Intermec is a compact, new reusable RFID tag that's ideal for industrial environments. Equipped with a wideband antenna, the tag to be used almost anywhere in the world on practically any surface, including metal, plastic and wood. The tag can withstand extreme temperatures, from 40 degrees below zero to 250 F, and long-term exposure to chemicals such as acetone, kerosene, machining oil and isopropyl alcohol. The tags can be used thousands of times for various applications in
supply chain and asset management operations, including on metal cages, plastic containers, beverage containers and chemical containers.

PHARMA, DOCUMENT TRACKING - Better Labeling Options
Printing solutions company Zebra Technologies licensed phase jitter modulation (PJM) RFID technology from Aussie developer Magellan. A high-frequency flavor of RFID that's proving popular with pharmaceutical companies, PJM offers high data read rates at the item level (think 1,200 tags per second, versus 50 tags per second with lower-frequency technologies), as well as faster programming rates (45 tags per second, versus 7). Document trackers are keen on the Magellan StackTag technology Zebra also licensed, which makes it possible to read closely stacked labels without interference. Zebra will offer printers with the PJM technology built in; users simply insert a roll of blank tags (also available from Zebra) and then program the printer with the read/write functionality they desire. //

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