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Sun Shines on Automatic-ID

Sun Microsystems was among the first high-tech manufacturers to see the value of ubiquitous RFID. Sun's Dirk Heyman talks about the benefits and the challenge of creating the needed infrastructure.
Jan 11, 2003—Jan. 13, 2003 - The Auto-ID Center has been dominated by retailers and consumer packaged goods companies. Sun Microsystems was the first large, high-tech manufacturing company to join the center. The company actually got involved with RFID, even before the Auto-ID Center was created. Procter & Gamble, Kodak and Johnson & Johnson wanted to use RFID to combat shoplifting. Sun felt that its Java software platform offered a means for creating a sophisticated system that would enable tags to do more than just beep at the exit.
Sun's Heyman

The companies deemed the tags too expensive and never went ahead with an actual pilot. But Sun jumped back in after P&G, Gillette, UCC, EAN and MIT founded the Auto-ID Center in 1999. The technology was a good fit for the company philosophically. Sun's mantra is "the network is the computer" and RFID tags are, in essence, an extension of the network. So convincing senior executives to put up the money for Sun to become a sponsor was not a difficult sell. Sun officially joined the Auto-ID Center in June 2000.

Since then, the company has assumed an important role. Dirk Heyman, head of Sun's global consumer goods industry segment, is chairman of the center's technology board and has helped to guide the development of the technology. Sun is also making an important contribution to the development of the backend infrastructure that will make it possible to turn Electronic Product Codes into useful information.

Heyman and Chris Clauss, Sun's global solutions architect for manufacturing industries, recently spoke to RFID Journal about the progress of the Auto-ID Center, the benefits auto-identification offers large manufacturers, and the need to create an infrastructure that can handle the data flows. Here are excerpts from that interview:

RFID Journal: Is Sun's interest mainly in selling servers that will process the data from RFID tags, or is there interest in using it internally for manufacturing?
Heyman: Both actually. We have our own manufacturing and distribution, and in our environment, the products change extremely fast. The value chain is largely outsourced, so sharing information with suppliers -- whether it is a component supplier or a distribution company -- is very critical. Right now, there is not a single numbering system. So you end up with different numbering systems that you try to unify. A single numbering system like the Electronic Product Code [EPC] would be very useful because it would also help us to serve our customers once a storage device or server is installed. It would even help us to design better products, because designers would be able to track what components are often used and their service histories. New products have large numbers of existing components, so our interest is for both internal and external use.

RFID Journal: RosettaNet has been trying to standardize the language around business processes. Is that effort complementary with what the Auto-ID Center is trying to do?
Clauss: The one thing that is missing from those standards is the automatic trigger. RosettaNet talks about how we do business-to-business transactions. But there is no trigger. Now that dock doors can send advanced shipping notices, these b-to-b transactions start to happen by themselves. Computers know how to talk to one another, now they have something to talk about.

Heyman: All our planning systems and supply chain systems are based on the assumption that we know what the stuff is and where it is. We all know that's not true. Reality moves faster than people can input data. Auto-ID is the answer. Our systems will know exactly what it is and where it is, which will make our systems much more efficient.
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