Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has great potential to improve the way companies do business. But RFID is just the beginning. There are other wireless sensors and actuators that will be as influential to information technology in the dawn of the 21st century as the Internet was to e-business at the twilight of the last century.
Sensor and actuator technologies, including RFID technology, address the need to transform and automate business processes, so managers can make immediate business decisions on demand. Tags embedded in pallets and affixed to packaged foods, pharmaceuticals, goods and equipment will enable companies to gain real-time visibility into their worldwide supply chains from any device connected to their server.
While retail, defense and consumer product companies have been among the first to invest in RFID to comply with mandates, broader worldwide adoption of RFID is not a mater of if, but how fast, and when. The accelerating adoption of new wireless technologies will vary by industry and will be driven by the influence and success of early adopters in a number of industries seeking to realize tangible business benefits.
RFID means business
Today, METRO Group, the world's fourth largest retailer, is a bellwether RFID innovator. At its state-of-the-art RFID Innovation Center in Germany, suppliers test their processes in a virtual environment to enable managers to replenish inventory in real time, rather than rely on guesswork or supply and demand forecasts from previous years. Results can be displayed on any device including handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs). At the heart of the RFID infrastructure is middleware that provides a standards-based infrastructure to collect, integrate and manage data obtained from RFID tags and readers from manufacturers to the retailer's distribution centers and stores. METRO Group depends on the technology to help it keep its shelves stocked at optimal levels to win satisfied and loyal customers.
But RFID is not just for retailers.
The United States Department of Defense is deploying the technology to track the movement of munitions, equipment and parts throughout its chain of 43,000 suppliers.
IBM has transformed a 140,000 square-foot manufacturing building in East Fishkill, New York, into the world's most advanced semiconductor manufacturing facility. It uses 300-millimeter (300mm) wafers to produce customized chips for everything from cell phones and video-game consoles to central processing units. RFID readers are integrated into the plant's production tools to track its supply chain of wafer carriers and fully automate the facility by instructing tools to perform production steps on chips.
Kureha Environmental Engineering Co., a waste management company in Japan, is using RFID technologies to tag and track medical waste as it is transported for disposal to prevent illegal disposal and improve public safety.
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.
The United States Army's Tank Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), for instance, completed the testing phase of a sensor solution based on IBM middleware and integration services. The solution takes advantage of sensors embedded in military vehicles that send wireless signals notifying the central command and field units if there is a mechanical problem with the vehicle. This means mechanics might not have to jump out and "look under the hood" in the field of battle which can help keep them out of harm's way at times. Troops can obtain a diagnosis from the sensor solution and then decide whether they can continue or turn back for repairs. Sensors also relay information about fuel and ammunition levels.
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. The technology can also 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 technical challenges
To realize all these benefits, the wireless industry needs common standards to assure that businesses 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 information technology infrastructure is less costly and time-consuming than ripping out and replacing an existing closed system. Only by speaking the same computer languages can the benefits of sensor networks be realized. That's why an open wireless industry ecosystem is so important to all information technology customers.
About the author: Dr. Robert Mayberry was named vice president, IBM Sensor and Actuator Solutions in March, 2004. Mayberry oversees technologies and solutions developed for customer business opportunities, including RFID technology and Industrial Automation. Previously, he was Director of Business Partner Technical Enablement at IBM, responsible for leading the technical activities of an international unit managing the architecture and technology enablement of independent software vendor enterprise and mid-market applications across IBM's software group. From 1986 to 1993 he worked at IBM as a Laboratory Product Manager, overseeing software engineering for application development. His development responsibilities covered all middleware servers, messaging and development tools in IBM's portfolio. He also has been responsible for artificial intelligence and compiler design work in IBM's development and research laboratories.
Mayberry received a Masters Degree in Computer Science & Education from Stanford University and a Ph.D. and Sc. B. in Applied Mathematics from Polytechnic University - Pomona.