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Intel Takes RFID Inside

The semiconductor giant learned a lot about the potential business value of RFID during a recent pilot to track tagged cases of microchips as it packed and shipped them to an OEM customer.
By Jonathan Collins
Mar 07, 2005When semiconductor giant Intel launched an RFID pilot within its operations, the company was determined to learn everything it could about the technology and its potential. Intel is built around a strong belief that technology can always help improve its performance, and the company felt that radio frequency identification offered it a way to improve its manufacturing and logistics operations. By the end of a monthlong pilot in one of its factories, it had also learned a great deal about its own working practices and those of one of its key customers.

"We are great at manufacturing worldwide, but we can also get better," says Mary Murphy-Hoye, senior principal engineer in Intel's Smart Object Research program. "We have spent a year and a half trying to learn as much as possible about RFID from a business and a technical prospective."

Murphy-Hoye's Smart Object Research team is charged with working with new and emerging technologies and exploring how those technologies might be applied within the real business environment—at Intel's own operations or at those of its customers. "Intel is a large enterprise, with very complex manufacturing operations and a supply chain that can be used to help us explore new technologies," says Murphy-Hoye.

Boxes of Intel microchips with RFID labels from UPM Rafsec

The group became interested in RFID as part of ongoing research with MIT to study how to make supply chains more responsive to demand by enabling sales operations to drive production more closely. The group found that in order for companies to do that, they required far better information to be collected in real-time regarding inventory in the supply chain, and RFID looked to provide a way to deliver greater visibility.

At the same time, Intel had also been studying RFID and other smart objects such as motes and sensors (see Ushering in Age of Sensors and Sensors to Network the World), as well as potential RFID-enabled consumer applications (see How RFID Aids Alzheimer's Patients and Intel Demos RFID-Enabled Projects).

Murphy-Hoye started looking at RFID and other smart object technologies such as sensors and motes in a bid to not just improve Intel's manufacturing performance but also to experiment with technologies that might later find their way into Intel products. "We view the technology market from beginning to end. We build silicon, ship it to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] for them to include in their computing products, and then we use those PCs and servers and other products to run and manage our business," she says.

With that cycle in mind, Intel has already carried out two projects examining the potential of RFID. For the first project, Intel had passive 13.56 MHz RFID tags placed on new laptops it was buying. The project aimed to help Intel understand how RFID might be able to help the company with its asset management. Intel worked with its laptop supplier to tag 300 laptops at the supplier's warehouse before the supplier shipped the computers to Intel. Intel's receiving area used an RFID portal to check in the shipped laptops.

According to Murphy-Hoye, the combination worked extremely well albeit within the limitations of the 13.56 MHz read ranges. The group invented a 3D mapping technique to understand the impact that the environment, the laptops' packaging and composition and the pallet layout on the performance of the reader portal. That provided a tuning mechanism for increasing coverage and reliability of the pallet reads. Based on the success of that trial, Intel plans to hold further trials that will see the tagging pushed back to the laptops' manufacturing site and farther into the Intel environment, says Murphy-Hoye.

For the second, and larger, RFID pilot, the company added UHF tags to cases of silicon microchips as they were packaged at an Intel assembly and test plant in Malaysia and shipped to the manufacturing plant of an OEM that makes PCs in Malaysia. Throughout December 2004, that pilot tracked more than 80,000 Intel processors and valued at over $17.2 million.

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