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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
In designing the pilot, Intel wanted to ensure that the RFID system wouldn't interfere with Intel's manufacturing and logistics operations, or the OEM's operations. As a result, a great deal of time was spent up front collaborating with internal and external factory and warehouse workers in order to understand their operations so that the RFID system would fit their environment and current practices.

"The project required close cooperation with the OEM, and that gave us a very different insight into how one of our customers uses our product, as well as the technology it uses to manufacture its products and run its business," says Murphy-Hoye. For example, the OEM's number one principle governing the way it operates its business is the velocity of its manufacturing process. The OEM has built its business on building computers as quickly and efficiently as possible, and on shaving costs by having components and parts arrive at its manufacturing plant just hours ahead of when they are needed. Because the OEM's is a high-volume business, the computer maker believes that "making its processes faster is worth the investment. When you understand that, you realize you can enable faster processes through RFID," she says.

In testing the potential for the technology, Intel didn't want to hand over development of its RFID pilot to a consulting company. With Murphy-Hoye as research lead, a cross-Intel team set about developing all the software and systems required for a trial RFID deployment to track semiconductors as they left the manufacturing plant, moved through storage and shipping areas and arrived at the OEM's facility in Malaysia. "We used no external software, middleware or systems because we wanted a hands-on experience and insight not only into the information in the system but with the RFID equipment we are working with," says Murphy-Hoye.

The company also didn't want to restrict its RFID experiments to a lab. Intel believed it could learn more by deploying RFID as part of its existing production line. "Experiments in the lab with ubiquitous computing technologies aren't interesting or persuasive. For a manufacturing supply chain you want to do this new-technology testing in a high-volume production environment," says Murphy-Hoye.

But this approach also meant learning some things the hard way. "Our in-situ lab was just a space with rope around it in an Arizona warehouse. When the first reader was switched on, it managed to shut down all the bar code readers in the warehouse. Our team realized what had happened only when everybody else started shouting, but it's something we learned by testing within the warehouse and would never have known in a totally separate lab," says Murphy-Hoye.

For the monthlong trial, Intel opted to use UHF RFID readers designed by ThingMagic and made by Tyco Fire & Security's Sensormatic division and both 64-bit and 96-bit passive tags made by UPM Rafsec with chips from Philips Semiconductors. Murphy-Hoye says the choice of reader manufacturer was led by a desire to create a flexible system and that the ThingMagic-designed readers, which Intel had helped develop (see ThingMagic Teams Up With Intel), would allow Intel to do so.

As for the tags, given the December timing of the test—just ahead of the Wal-Mart and DOD mandates—Murphy-Hoye says she was pressed to find a tag supplier that could meet the relatively small quantity of tags the trial required, but she was impressed with the Rafsec antenna design and the Philips chip as well as Rafsec's ability to supply tags for the trial. Initial testing of the tags and readers as well as an end-to-end installation of the final RFID systems was carried out at an Intel warehouse in Chandler, Ariz. to ensure that the system could be deployed without interrupting either Intel's or the OEM's production lines in Malaysia.

However, installing the equipment in Malaysia meant taking additional precautions to comply with that country's spectrum regulations. Unless restricted to a narrow band of spectrum, an UHF RFID system could interfere with cell phone calls in Malaysia.

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