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IBM Bulks Up Its RFID Initiative
Big Blue has made RFID a top priority, adding the technology to its manufacturing operations, rolling out industry-specific RFID deployment services and rolling out RFID test labs.
IBM has a long history with RFID. For more than 10 years, the company has worked on specialized RFID projects and even developed RFID patents for how tags and readers communicate. However, the company sold its nascent RFID operations and patents to Everett, Wash.-based RFID systems provider Intermec Technologies seven years ago.
Even without readers and tags, IBM can still be a one-stop shop for any RFID project—from business case to full deployment. “IBM has been very active across multiple areas of RFID. They are not part of tagging and reading the item, but they have products from edge servers through the entire value chain and through enterprise applications,” Michielsen says.
Rather than set up a specific RFID business, IBM has opted to use the RFID emerging-business unit structure to incubate its RFID operations within its services organization and deliver related support to its separate industry-specific operations within the company. “RFID is applicable to a wide range of industries and uses. The goal of the RFID emerging-business unit is to promote RFID within IBM so that each industry unit builds its own RFID business,” Holland says.
The company is taking a similar approach within its software division. In September, the software division announced the formation of its Sensor and Actuator unit, which has the responsiblility for developing software products that will bring together IBM’s existing software offerings and add RFID-specific capabilities. Like Faye Holland’s RFID unit in IBM Global Services, Sensor and Actuator will draw from IBM staff employed within a range of other IBM organizations.
As the RFID market matures and customers look for more mature services, IBM says, its Global Services RFID emerging-business unit will also mature, and its skills and knowledge will be handed off to those business groups. That would leave IBM well positioned to provide the key tools to enable RFID data to be integrated with existing enterprise applications. “A planned packaged RFID architecture from IBM will take advantage of key WebSphere components like WebSphere Application Server and WebSphere MQ for reliable messaging, as well as DB2,” says Sharyn Leaver, vice president and research director at Forrester Research, which is based in Cambridge, Mass.
IBM has already trialed its potential RFID middleware offerings at one of its own RFID deployments. A new automation process at its Fishkill, N.Y., semiconductor facility uses IBM’s own SiView Standard manufacturing execution system integrated with its IBM DB2 Database and IBM WebSphere MQ messaging platform and IBM WebSphere Application Server in conjunction with passive RFID tags attached to carriers of 300mm semiconductor wafers.
IBM, however, can already offer a single source for companies looking for someone to plan and implement an RFID system, but only through relying on strategic partners to deliver the tags, readers and connectivity middleware for any deployment.
“IBM has 25 partner companies actively working on readers and tags and has strong relationships with Philips Semiconductor, tag providers including Alien Technology, Intermec and Avery Dennison and, in the reader space, Intermec, Symbol and SAMsys,” Holland says. “We never wanted to be in the reader business, and we still don’t.” At the reader-management level, IBM has partnership agreements with RFID middleware vendors including OATSystems and ConnecTerra.
Despite these partnership agreements, some analysts believe in the long term, IBM may well replace some of its partner’s middleware with its own offerings. “IBM has been integrating applications for a long time, and it’s a lot easier for it to develop RFID connectivity and the algorithms for data filtering than it is for new companies to move into that application integration space. Replacing partner software such as OATSystems’ and ConnecTerra’s would give IBM a very complete enterprise RFID offering,” Leaver says.
IBM maintains, however, that the potential market for RFID services and the variety of situations in which RFID may be deployed means partnerships will always be essential. “We subcontract selectively for specialized knowledge or because of company constraints. No company could scale to the number of markets and opportunities for RFID,” Mantas says.
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