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IBM, Motorola Execs Say RFID Is Key to Better World

RFID can be used to instrument social, economic and environmental changes globally, according to IBM's Martin Wildberger and Motorola's Jerry McNerney.
By Beth Bacheldor
"We talk about using RFID in the supply chain a lot—how to match supply with demand," Wildberger said. "One of the toughest is fresh water—there's a huge shortage of fresh water, and it's only getting worse. All this technology has a great opportunity to transform the way water systems work." RFID also has the potential to improve energy management in buildings, and to help streamline traffic patterns by monitoring traffic flows, among other things.

The smarter planet, Wildberger stressed, hinges on three key concepts: instrumentation, interconnectivity and intelligence. "RFID is a great example of new instrumentation that's coming online," he said. "Instrumentation shines this big flashlight on things."

Jerry McNerney
Motorola's McNerney pointed to a variety of RFID applications that can not only help companies ride out economic hardships, but also create stronger workforces. Specifically, businesses can make their distribution centers (DCs) and warehouses more technologically advanced by outfitting them with RFID to better ensure the correct product is being shipped to the appropriate customer at the right time. But by instituting more tech-savvy warehouse processes, companies are also better positioned to recruit skilled workers, or provide existing unskilled employees with greater job satisfaction by using RFID to enable them to do skilled tasks.

"The reality is, even in today's challenging economic environment, people don't aspire to be warehouse workers," McNerney said. "I was down in North Carolina recently, with a large copier company, and they were saying that their ability to recruit warehouse workers is very difficult, even in this economy. We need to be able to provide the technology to make workers highly skilled, and RFID technology is one of the tools that allow companies to do that."

In addition, McNerney cited next-generation uses of RFID that are gaining traction. "One area I have a lot of interest in is the food and cold chain applications," he said, noting how RFID combined with temperature sensors can be used to manage temperature ranges, as well as ensure food and other temperature-sensitive items are safe while in transit, sitting in DCs or awaiting purchase.

RFID, McNerney noted, together with sensor technologies, could also be utilized in health-care systems. He highlighted the current swine flu outbreak, for instance, as "an uncontrolled environment" in which RFID could play a role. (One firm exploring how the technology might be used to track the spread of infectious diseases is Infonaut, a Toronto startup company that is developing a real-time locating system [RTLS] to help hospitals map, manage and contain the spread of such illnesses [see The Hunt for Killer Germs]).

McNerney closed his keynote presentation by calling on attendees to focus on executing the RFID systems currently available, and to "be of the mindset" regarding where to go in the future. "We've got a technology [RFID]," he said. "Why aren't we taking advantage of it and using it? There's no limitation to what we can try to accomplish."

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