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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
"Developing the database took much longer than expected, as the design ended up very different from how we first imagined it. Thinking of tracking an object seems to be a basic relationship, but there is a need to think of it hierarchically, with tagged items inside other tagged items, so that means a hierarchical database. But then there is a relational nature of a tagged item shipping with other tagged items and looking for that relationship. In the end, we developed a relational database that has object and hierarchical capabilities," says Murphy-Hoye.

It also took a lot of work to develop the application that shared the RFID tag data collected by the readers and stored in the database. Applications developers needed to consider multitude of variables, such as where the readers are, how frequently the tags are read, how long it takes to read the tags and how to deal with failed reads and other exceptions. "Applications developers normally write code, hand it over and say 'run it.' But with RFID, there were so many variables to take into account that they had to come down to the warehouse floor with us to see what the production environment was like and embed their code with this insight," says Murphy-Hoye.

Without RFID, the OEM staff has to scan the bar code labels on boxes and pallets after it unloads shipments from Intel, and then manually check the delivery before entering the details into its systems. With the RFID portal at the OEM's Malaysian plant, Intel could see deliveries accepted straight away. Intel says that kind of immediate data sharing revealed some quick insights about the physical movement of product. "We learned that a lot of rush orders blast through the Intel logistics process to sit on a truck in Malaysia for three hours because of lunch, even though the Intel plant is just a 45-minute drive away from the OEM manufacturing site," says Murphy-Hoye.

The portal configuration used at dock doors to read tags on products being received into inventory

While Intel is currently working to analyze all the data from the RFID trial in Malaysia, the company says it has already learned a great deal about RFID as a technology, how it must be deployed and how it can drive change within Intel.

According to Murphy-Hoye, when Intel was designing a way to implement its RFID trial with the OEM, it became clear that the project required a holistic approach that considered both the business and technology contexts, as well as the individual capabilities of RFID and how to integrate that technology into both companies' operations. "Unless a new system is embedded into the fabric of a manufacturing process, it will not work," says Murphy-Hoye.

Murphy-Hoye also believes she learned that the technology still has some maturing to do both on the reader and the tag side. "Writing to tags was the biggest problem. The tags' write failure rate was fairly high, with 10 to 20 percent unwriteable. Still, the trial took place just as Philips was switching its chip production from 64-bit silicon to 96-bit, so the failure rate of tags based on 96-bit chips as they are first written to may already be better now," says Murphy-Hoye. In addition, the trial used a reader to write to tags, but Murphy-Hoye now believes an RFID label printer would have been a better solution. RFID printers had been used for the laptop tagging trial and had proved to do a far better job of screening for bad tags during the write process. In the warehouse trial, bad tags weren't eliminated until after several attempts at writing to the RFID chip, says Murphy-Hoye.

Because of problems related to the performance of the RFID readers and tags—an unexpectedly lower success rate when writing to the tags and the need for multiple portal passes to ensure 100 percent read rates at the Intel and OEM facilities—Murphy-Hoye is convinced that UHF RFID integrated systems may not be ready for end-to-end full deployment quite yet. But she believes that Intel's pilots involving the technology have been invaluable. "This stuff just doesn't work well just yet. But at least now we are in a position to say what it needs to do and to work with vendors to get there," says Murphy-Hoye. "And we learned some very new and useful things about how our factory and transportation works."

Murphy-Hoye says her group's two RFID pilots have shown the potential for RFID within Intel's manufacturing and supply chain operations and opportunity for quantifiable business value. As a result, Intel plans additional trials with end-to-end trial tracking of items from foreign manufacturing sites to the U.S. and on to international customers set for sometime later in 2005.

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