Dollars and Sensors

By Robert Mayberry

RFID is the start of a new age of wireless sensors and actuators that will be as influential in information technology in the 21st century as the Internet was to e-business at the end of the last century.

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At the EPCglobal U.S. Conference in Baltimore, M.D., in September, some 1,000 executives gathered to discuss how RFID technology will radically change the way businesses gain value from information technology. There was a lot of buzz at the show, and rightly so. RFID has great potential to improve the way companies do business. But RFID is just the beginning. There are other wireless sensors and actuators—a device attached to a sensor that can activate machinery when something is sensed or a threshold is reached—that will be as influential in information technology in the 21st century as the Internet was to e-business at the end of the last century.

Sensor and actuator technologies, including RFID, address the need to transform and automate business processes, so managers can make immediate business decisions in real time. Tags embedded in pallets and affixed to packaged foods, pharmaceuticals, goods and equipment will enable companies to gain visibility into their worldwide supply chains from any device connected to their server.

Managers will be able to replenish inventory in real time, rather than relying on guesswork or supply and demand forecasts from previous years. Using enterprise applications—enterprise resource planning, warehouse management and supply chain management systems—to access information from databases and Web portals, a user can immediately gain access to information from RFID tags and readers to pinpoint the exact location of inventory at any stage of the supply chain.

RFID Means Business

Metro Group, the world's fourth largest retailer, is one of the world's bellwether RFID innovators. At its state-of-the-art RFID Innovation Center in Germany, suppliers test their processes in a virtual environment, where the results can be displayed on any device including handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs). The center also has an RFID tag deactivator kiosk, and IBM kiosks that enable customers and employees to access customized information about the shopping experience from an advanced inventory system supplying real-time information about store products and sales.

Metro's goal is to develop a faster, more efficient and secure supply chain. At the heart of its RFID infrastructure is middleware that will provide a standards-based infrastructure to collect, integrate and manage data obtained from RFID tags and readers from manufacturers to Metro's distribution centers and stores. Using RFID tags that can be read from several meters away without a direct line of sight when a radio wave is passed over it, stores will eliminate the time-consuming process of physically checking each pallet shipped and delivered to the distribution centers, reducing the time needed to unload delivery trucks. The retailer is currently testing its middleware in a pilot involving 250 of its stores.

Through this type of process automation, RFID will help the retail giant keep its shelves stocked and customers satisfied. Every good businessperson knows happy and loyal customers help retailers extend their return on investment. But RFID is not just for retailers. The U.S. Department of Defense is deploying the technology to track the movement of munitions, equipment and parts throughout its chain of 43,000 suppliers. Boeing and Airbus plan to track parts from their suppliers, eventually reducing the time it takes to assemble an aircraft from 30 days to 72 hours.

A New Wireless Frontier

RFID is just the tip of the wireless sensor revolution. Sensors and actuators will extend the edge of the IT infrastructure to integrate the physical world of devices, computers and machines with business process applications based on standards-based middleware. Sensors are little devices that detect and measure real-world conditions and convert them into signals that can be sent to actuators. Actuators turn devices on and off or adjust and move things. Some, such as doorbells, thermostats, garage door openers and toll collection systems, have been around for years. Harbor Research, a Boston-based research and consulting firm, predicts businesses will use more than a billion sensors and actuators in the not too distant future to improve performance and save costs through industrial automation.

For example, a large airline is using sensors to monitor the lifecycle of aircraft components remotely. Sensors can alert mechanics to the need for preventative maintenance, so parts can be replaced before they break down. No one wants a $5 bolt or nut, for instance, to damage a $100 million dollar engine. And a major oil and petroleum company uses sensors embedded in its pipelines to monitor the type and flow petroleum products. That information is relayed over a satellite communications network and is integrated with a billing application to optimize the use of the pipeline, share information about the type, flow and temperatures of liquids, and automate the billing of usage fees.

Sensors offer benefits, too. Devices the size of a small button or grain of rice can detect pollutants, prevent weapons or contraband from being smuggled into ports and observe battlefields. What's more, the technology can be used to track cattle and food and keep pharmaceutical products fresh. Sensors can improve blood supply safety, identify forest or building fires, track airline luggage, prevent counterfeiting, monitor traffic patterns and automatically recall flawed automobile parts.

Future Challenges

But to realize all these benefits, the industry needs common standards to assure that business partners can share the data generated by RFID tags and wireless sensors. Sensors and actuators will need to easily integrate with the existing information technology infrastructure. Extending an integrated and open standards-based IT infrastructure is less costly and time-consuming than ripping out and replacing an existing closed system. Only by speaking the same languages can the benefits of sensor networks be realized. That's why an open wireless industry ecosystem is so important to all IT customers.

Robert Mayberry is vice president of IBM Sensor and Actuator Solutions. To comment on this article, click on the link below.