RFID moves beyond the warehouse

Tagging technology opens new horizons for asset management and control

See correction at end of article

Anyone who sells consumer goods to Best Buy, Target, or Wal-Mart knows that tagging product pallets with RFID tags is mandatory. The tags help suppliers and retailers speed the tracking of inventory as it moves from manufacturer warehouses to transportation centers and eventually to retailer warehouses.

But RFID has benefits that reach far beyond inventory tracking. By combining RFID tags with asset management systems, enterprises are implementing sophisticated, real-time asset control processes. "Asset management is one of the biggest growth areas for RFID," says Erik Michielsen, RFID analyst at ABI Research.

Major automakers, including BMW and Toyota, and shipping companies, such as NYK Logistics, were among the first to deploy RFID for asset management. They used WhereNet's active RFID tags -- transponders that emit a signal -- on cars or shipping containers waiting in shipping lots. By monitoring these tags within asset management systems, these companies can ensure that the lot gates alert guards when a vehicle leaves the lot outside its scheduled time or that the right container is placed on the right truck. Transponders such as WhereNet's are typically the size of several decks of cards, which restricts their use to large objects, and cost between $40 and $80.

But passive RFID tags are cheap (often costing less than a dime) and small (about the size of a postage stamp, and not much thicker), allowing them to be affixed to small items such as laptops, chemical containers, ID badges, and aircraft parts. This enables affordable tracking of a wide range of objects, not just big ones.

For example, Virgin Atlantic Airways plans to use RFID tags on aircraft parts to track their location in repair shops and to store maintenance data so that crews can see what parts Click for larger view. need repair while they are still in the aircraft. And, Robert Bosch Tool recently began offering RFID tags on 65 commercial-grade models of its tools for use by larger construction companies to help speed up equipment check-in and checkout at job sites. It charges between 1 percent and 5 percent more for the RFID-equipped tools, which can be read by the two main tool management systems from ToolMaster Technologies and ToolWatch. For about $10 per tool, the company will place tags inside competitors' tools. In the coming years, John Doherty, product manager at Bosch, expects hardware makers to offer construction companies RFID readers that can also write information, thereby allowing contractors to track repair and usage history and thus use the tags to manage tool maintenance and replacement cycles.

44FErfid_in.gif
For example, Virgin Atlantic Airways plans to use RFID tags on aircraft parts to track their location in repair shops and to store maintenance data so that crews can see what parts Click for larger view. need repair while they are still in the aircraft. And, Robert Bosch Tool recently began offering RFID tags on 65 commercial-grade models of its tools for use by larger construction companies to help speed up equipment check-in and checkout at job sites. It charges between 1 percent and 5 percent more for the RFID-equipped tools, which can be read by the two main tool management systems from ToolMaster Technologies and ToolWatch. For about $10 per tool, the company will place tags inside competitors' tools. In the coming years, John Doherty, product manager at Bosch, expects hardware makers to offer construction companies RFID readers that can also write information, thereby allowing contractors to track repair and usage history and thus use the tags to manage tool maintenance and replacement cycles.

Many of the early adoptions of RFID for asset management have started with traditional inventory management deployments, expanding as IT proves RFID brings benefits to more parts of the organization than just the warehouse.

NASA retools its chemical operations

At its Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, NASA and its contractors use lots of chemicals when developing and servicing aircraft. Many are corrosive, prone to exploding when mixed with other chemicals, or hazardous to human health and the environment. Yet, they are spread across large areas, located at NASA, Air Force, and contractor hangars, in staging areas on runways, and on the desert floor.

NASA had used bar codes on chemical containers and had relied on staffers at the dispensaries to scan each chemical and record the amount dispensed and to whom it was dispensed. But with budget cuts for its operations staff, NASA needed a more efficient approach, says Tom Ambrose, environmental and safety officer at Dryden Flight Research Center.

So the agency deployed RFID tags on all its containers. It also put readers in various storage lockers, which weigh the containers to track usage and make sure the right material is stored in each locker. This process helps avoid dangerous combinations by comparing the chemicals' actual weights with their expected weights. At entrances to work areas, the agency has placed Intermec RFID portal readers to monitor what chemical containers come in or leave, as well as with whom, which is assessed by reading RFID tags on employee badges.

The Dryden system is connected to an Oracle-based database and an asset control application called the Hazardous Materials Management System. It takes inventory every few seconds at all locations and uses that information to determine what chemical containers are where and with whom and then correlates that status to the process rules, Ambrose says. This helps ensure that chemicals don't end up in the wrong place, get used by unqualified or unauthorized technicians, or get taken out of the facility altogether. (Frequent checking helps overcome the occasional blip in reading a tag that leads to false alarms; the system is programmed to ignore instances in which a container seems to disappear for a few seconds but alerts security staff if it doesn't reappear after a few cycles.)

The automated system allows NASA to get by with fewer staff members, and Ambrose is now exploring whether the automated system will allow Dryden to make some chemicals available through self-service automated kiosks, which would cut down on technicians' travel time when retrieving commonly used chemicals from depots.

By combining this data with information on container weight from storage lockers, the system can also detect how much of each material has been used, which helps fine-tune replenishment. NASA is trying to reduce the amount of chemical material it orders and stores, given that the disposal of unneeded or expired chemicals often costs more than the chemicals themselves, Ambrose says.

Ambrose expects the next stage will be to move to Generation 2 RFID tags, which provide authentication, thereby allowing NASA to control who is authorized to read specific information on the tags. His concern is that as chemicals are shipped to or from NASA on public highways, terrorists could read the earlier-generation tags and figure out what chemicals are in the trucks. Through authentication, NASA systems would have full access to the information; public safety officials such as police would have access only to basic information, such as how to isolate the material in case of an accident; others would have no access whatsoever.

Hewlett-Packard curbs network downtime

Product manufacturers often create lots of data about their products as they move through the assembly line to make sure any defects are tracked and that the system is flowing smoothly, with parts going to the right stations in the right condition. But that creates a complex network that's difficult to maintain, says Greg Edds, manager of global operations at Hewlett-Packard. Worse, if the network gets overloaded or goes down, the whole assembly line is stalled.

That's why HP is implementing the new RFID Generation 2 tags and readers in its Brazil printer plant. (Gen2 tags can be read by multiple brands of readers and can store more information than can earlier-generation tags.) Rather than wire each station to the network, HP has deployed devices that can read an RFID tag affixed to a unit under construction to get its history and status and then write the updated status to the tag as the part moves on to the next station.

"The only network connection is to the last station on the line to upload the complete history of the product for final production tracking and historical analysis," Edds says. "So the server infrastructure can be reduced. In case of network loss, the results can be stored locally until the network is back up, which eliminates any factory disruption."

Edds expects the RFID approach to reduce network management costs and make the assembly line more efficient, although he won't reveal estimated savings. HP is also using RFID readers elsewhere in its production facilities to meet mandates by several of its retailers that all product boxes have RFID tags. For example, at its Memphis, Tenn., scanner and printer assembly plant, HP tags product boxes and pallets to monitor their location in both the production facility and warehouses. That's particularly important for HP because several subcontractors work on premises, so HP needs to record when products leave the subcontractors' ownership and become owned -- and thus paid for -- by HP. HP's experience with this more traditional use of RFID gave the company the comfort level to pilot the asset management project at the Brazil factory, Edds says.

Social Security Administration rejuvenates asset management

The Social Security Administration frequently takes inventory of its office equipment to make sure taxpayer-paid resources remain accounted for. In the past, the agency's auditors would scan bar-code labels on each piece of equipment, which is a slow process because the bar codes first had to be located on the equipment. But now, having become comfortable with the technology in its warehouses, the agency's logistics group uses RFID tags, says Gary Orem, the group's project manager.

Quickly, the group's IT team realized that the RFID technology could do more than just track pallets of pamphlets and stationery: It could help actively control access to equipment. So the agency is now experimenting with a system to track when equipment is moved from an area, starting with the IT offices in Washington, D.C., that also house loaner equipment. Access to that area is fairly open. Because the doors are often left unlocked, it's not hard for someone to drop by and borrow equipment without formally checking it out. So the group has placed an RFID reader on the door to detect when equipment passes through. The idea is to see how accurate the reader is at such a location. Next, the group will install a motion detector to determine whether the equipment is coming or going, says Matthew Anderson, a programmer in the group. Then, it will tie in the RFID reader's data with the agency's SQL database and an asset management solution from Sunflower Systems running on an Oracle platform to enable real-time tracking of the loaner and IT equipment.

The ultimate goal, Orem says, is to track all equipment in the building and to discover in real time when equipment leaves the building. That will require putting readers at exits and connecting them to the agency's asset management system to verify whether permission was granted to remove the equipment, alerting security staff -- and perhaps even locking the doors automatically -- if not. Orem would also like to track who is taking the equipment by having RFID tags on employees' badges, to make sure the person carrying the equipment is authorized to do so. That means coordinating with the agency's security group, which would need to deploy the RFID tags on employee badges and link its systems to those within the logistics group. In September, the security group agreed to consider doing so.

The agency is also using RFID to regulate access to its fueling center. Until recently, employees had a fuel card they swiped at the pump to dispense the gasohol used in the agency's vehicles. But that system couldn't ensure that the vehicle being fueled belonged to the agency. Also, the agency was getting mileage and other car-status information manually, as employees filled out forms, often with errors, Orem recalls. So the agency has added RFID tags to the fuel pumps' nozzles and a reader to the agency's vehicles. (The RFID reader's sensor is put in the gas tank's collar and is connected by wire to the reader stored in the car's trunk.) When the nozzle is inserted into the tank, the reader validates the pump and then sends a wireless signal to the pump to turn it on. The reader is also connected to the vehicle's computer, which keeps data on mileage and operational status. This data is uploaded at the same time, so the agency gets accurate records of mileage and can detect repair and maintenance needs automatically, Anderson says. The cost, Orem says, is about $200 for each of the fleet's 65 vehicles, a small cost, indeed, when measured against the potential savings.

Correction:

In this article, we should have said that the Social Security Administration's RFID-based asset management solution uses Sunflower Systems software running on an Oracle platform. InfoWorld regrets the error, which has been corrected.

Mobile Security Insider: iOS vs. Android vs. BlackBerry vs. Windows Phone
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies