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Putting RFID Know-How to Work

Hewlett-Packard was an early adopter of RFID technology. Now, the IT and computer powerhouse wants to put knowledge gained internally to work for its customers.
By Jonathan Collins
Aug 23, 2004—More than two years ago, Hewlett-Packard, the IT and computer products and services provider based in Palo Alto, Calif., started deploying RFID in parts of its manufacturing and distribution chain. Now the company is using its experience and expertise to meet Wal-Mart’s mandate ahead of schedule. And in May, it launched a range of RFID services to help manufacturers and logistics companies ensure the effective selection, integration and deployment of the technology.

Readers scan goods as they move through a portal

“We saw RFID as a way to help reduce manual processes and cut inventory,” says Salil Pradhan, chief technologist for HP’s RFID initiatives and a researcher at HP Labs. “Even before that we had seen the potential for RFID to combat counterfeiters in our ink cartridge business.” (Much of that work is still in its early stages, although before the end of the year, HP may step up its research in this area.)

“We see RFID as a business well worth our R&D investment, because it is a market that is set to see large growth,” says Pradhan. “We are investing our resources in the technology, as well as in providing consulting services worldwide. It is very, very important to our company.”

The company’s head start in deploying RFID is already paying dividends. HP is one of a handful of Wal-Mart suppliers tagging shipments to the retailer (see Wal-Mart Begins RFID Rollout). Currently, HP is placing RFID tags with Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) on two of its printers and one scanner; all told, it ships 65 consumer products to Wal-Mart. But HP says it will be ready to tag shipments of all its consumer products to Wal-Mart’s North Texas distribution center weeks ahead of the retailer’s January 2005 deadline.

So far, HP has designed and deployed RFID systems at two of its facilities in the United States (see HP Tags Printers, Scanners). At its Memphis manufacturing center, tags are placed on the packaging of each individually boxed desktop printer or scanner, and on the pallets on which the products are shipped. Before the tagged pallets are shipped to Wal-Mart, they are sent to an HP distribution center, where an RFID portal reads the tags to record the transfer of the finished goods. At its Chester, Va., plant, RFID tags are being placed on cases of HP inkjet printer cartridges that the company plans to ship to Wal-Mart.

HP is also preparing about 29 production facilities and distribution centers worldwide to handle EPC-tagged shipments. Its plants in Asia, which ship directly to Wal-Mart, are expected to be able to tag products before the end of the year.

HP maintains that what it has learned from these RFID deployments can be channeled into its efforts to support its customers RFID deployments. “We have a great deal of knowledge from deploying RFID in our own business,” says Pradhan. “First and foremost, we gained valuable knowledge about the physical level of RFID deployment: how and where do you tag things and what RFID products work well together and what do not.”

The company says it has also gained experience in deploying middleware and managing the exchange of RFID data in an enterprise. It has learned how much data RFID networks generate, what data to keep and how to store it.

“This is all experience we make available to our customers,” says Pradhan. “We are still learning, but what we have already learned helps us make sure the path for the customer is smoother.”
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