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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 Malaysia, the cell phone spectrum is very close to 915 MHz, so we had to turn down the power and frequency range of the reader signals and ensure they stayed within 917.5 MHz to 922.5 MHz," says Murphy-Hoye. She explains that the team also found it could manage radio interference by wrapping each RFID antenna in a Mylar-coated bag, leaving just a small opening to focus the signal. According to Murphy-Hoye, this desiccant bag is used in the packaging of electronic equipment. "The Mylar coating on the desiccant bag is like a silver coating. Reader signals can't penetrate it; the signal is just reflected back," says Murphy-Hoye. Like other RFID readers, the ones deployed Intel use more than one frequency to send and receive signals from tags, but with a signal power reduced to enable only very close and focused write ranges.

In total, the Intel team deployed seven RFID readers, with each reader attached to two antennas. Intel deployed six RFID reader stations at its factory and warehouse in Malaysia and one at the OEM plant where the microprocessor shipments were received. Each station consisted of a Tyco UHF reader with two antennas deployed at an existing bar code read station. Five of the stations at Intel were already configured for manual reading of each carton's bar code as the carton passed on a conveyor.

The first station in the production line to have an RFID reader was a station where hundreds of microprocessors are packed in a box identified by two bar code labels, each encoded with the same numbers. Here, a worker applied an RFID tag to the carton and encoded the tag with same numbers as those on the bar code labels already on the carton. The bar code labels carry a unique box ID number, as well as a lot number, the number of items in the box and where they were made. This information is also duplicated on human-readable labels attached to the box. RFID promises to do away with a lot of manual checking of this information. "We are constantly putting labels on for people to read and verify, but we could eliminate that with RFID," says Murphy-Hoye.

The write station where labels were given unique serial numbers

Additional reads were taken at a stock-picking station, at the packing area, the shipment-selection area (where the boxes are placed on pallets for shipping) and at the door leading to the shipping dock where the pallets were loaded on to the truck for shipment to the OEM. As the cases were placed on the shipping pallets, all the case tags were read and associated with another tag that was added to the pallet. It was this pallet tag that was read at the warehouse exit. A final read was taken at the OEM factory as each tagged pallet and all the tagged boxes were received and moved into the plant.

According to Intel, the RFID system in the trial did add an additional task for the first station's operator, who had to encode and attach an RFID label to each case, but in a full deployment, that process would be an automated one. The trial, however, did prove potential savings could be gained from using RFID. "You see a lot of checking and rechecking in the warehouse to verify a case or shipment is the correct one to ship or store, but with RFID, why recheck when I automatically know what I have?" says Murphy-Hoye.

A key task for Intel was to determine where to place RFID readers so that they operated without interfering with existing production and shipping processes. To ensure that and to make certain that the project made the most of the potential to track shipments, Intel turned to a corporate ethnographer, an anthropologist of corporate culture, who observed product as it moved through the existing manufacturing and shipping process and issued a report based on those observations so that Intel could understand all the steps and variations of those steps that product in various forms can go through.

Using information from the corporate ethnographer's report, Intel decided where the RFID readers would be best deployed and went about developing the middleware and the database to collect, store and share data taken at the RFID read stations.

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