Apr 15, 2002April 15, 2002 - The name Kevin Ashton probably doesn't mean much to most people. And truth be known, it may never be a name that's featured prominently in history books. But Kevin Ashton may very well turn out to be one of those people who have a profound impact on the world.
As executive director of the Auto-ID Center, Ashton travels near and far promoting his vision of a day when every item – from cans of Coke to nuclear missiles – is tagged with a RFID chip so it can be tracked from the day it’s manufactured to time it’s recycled. If he and his team pull off this wildly audacious goal, the way every company makes and moves product will be forever changed. Boxes of cereal and big screen TVs will tell inventory control systems where they are, taking all the guesswork out of supply chain management.
But that's only the beginning. Once chips are put in everything from packs of chewing gum to carburetors, there will be unimagined opportunities to improve products. Forget entering cooking times on your microwave or setting the dial on your washing machine for delicate fabrics. Chips in these products will tell appliances what to do. Products will communicate with machines -- and each other.
Sounds far-fetched. And there’s no shortage of people who point to the cost of the chips – currently about 50 cents to a dollar – and say the intense, deadly serious Brita is daft. His response: "People who think it can’t be done shouldn’t waste the time of those who are doing it."
Ashton talks about creating an "Internet of things" that will be bigger than the existing Internet. He clearly relishes technological innovation: he sports a Titanium G4 laptop and the shelves of his impeccably neat office are lined with Wired and other IT publications. But he’s no starry-eyed techie. Ashton was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble (he’s about the only person at MIT who wears a suit and tie every day).
Ashton became interested in RFID back in 1997 when his team at Procter & Gamble created a hot shade of Oil of Olay lipstick called Hazelnut. Ashton would visit retailers and find the Hazelnut lipstick on the shelves in two out of five stores. When he saw an early version of a contactless smart card, he hit on the idea of ripping the chip out of the smart card and putting it on his lipstick. At the time, he'd never heard of RFID and had no idea how the smart card worked.
After doing some research, Ashton made a presentation to some executives at P&G. He proposed using RFID tags as a way to solve the company's supply chain problems. At the time, RFID tags cost a couple of dollars, and he knew it would be a few years before the price got down to the point where you could put a chip on a tube of lipstick, but he convinced one VP in London it was worth exploring. And when MIT got interested in the idea, an idea that once seemed ludicrous suddenly seemed possible.
The center is working on chip designed to help lower the cost of the tags. It will have the minimum components needed to carry a 96-bit electronic product code (similar to today's bar code). More important, it’s creating codes for identifying individual products, methods for describing physical objects in ways computers can understand and an IT infrastructure for Asthenia’s Internet of things.
The center’s 50-odd sponsors each coughed up $300,000 to join (or $150,000 for vendor companies). Some 30 full-time staff and grad student’s toil away in crusty rooms and tiny labs scattered around the MIT campus. A sister center at Cambridge University in England has another 12 staff, and other centers are planned for Asia and Latin America.
Ashton and his team began the first large-scale field trial of the Auto-ID Center's technology last October. All signs are that the technology works and that the system can handle the enormous amount of data that is generated by reading the RF tags. As the system is built out, Ashton continues to travel the world preaching the word. Big consumer companies seem to get it. The Auto-ID Center's membership continues to grow by two or three global companies a month. Retailers seem a little slower on the uptake. Target has joined the Center, but most other big retailers seem to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
"I can only assume they are pursing a first to be second strategy," says Ashton. "But that doesn’t account for the amount of time it takes to figure out how you are going to use this technology."
There are a lot of naysayers who point to problems with RF technology. Signals don't pass through metal. Interference from other RF systems can screw prevent data from being read properly. Readers have problem reading many tags at once and so on. Ashton says these technical obstacles are being overcome by his team daily.
"I’m the stupidest person on this team by a long, long way," he says. "If I have a problem I really need to solve, I can put a couple of cases of Dr. Pepper in the room, lock the door, and I’ll get a solution."
Ashton’s biggest concern isn’t that the technology won’t work; it’s that RFID isn’t attracting the entrepreneurial talent and money needed to create billions of tags and IT systems to cope with massive amounts of data. "There’s an incredible need and a surprising lack of people stepping forward to meet that need," he says. "It’s starting to change. There’ are more startups getting more investment more easily this year."
So how long before RFID is widely used to track goods in the supply chain? Ashton estiamtes it will take five years for RF tags to become common in the supply chain, three if all goes well with the Auto-ID Center's effort. And one day, when you are telling your grand children about the old days when washing machines and microwaves had to be set by hand, think of Kevin Ashton says.