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Technological Advances on a Global Scale

Technological applications in such tech areas as RFID, GPS, biometrics, WAAS, robotics; as well as, other fields of technology.

RFID applications expanding for everyone

A new RFID middleware that enables businesses to collect and act on data from RFID and other sensor-based technology is being introduced. The embedded tag technology allows businesses to place a lot of information on a small chip, so they can tell where that particular product is going, as well as getting other information on individual products while they are in transition.

Metro Group AG (a German grocery store company) already is using IBM's RFID middleware and WebSphere RFID Premises Server to gain a virtual view of inventory from 20 suppliers that are tagging pallets and cases shipped to Metro's distribution centers. Another 80 suppliers are scheduled to use the same RFID procedures later this year. The German retailer's goal is to eliminate inventory errors and improve customer satisfaction by making sure products are on the shelf when needed.

"The RFID tag is really a kind of sensor, one that can be attached to any product," said Ann Breidenbach, director of strategy at IBM's sensor and actuator solutions. "We have also developed a set of embedded middleware that is now mature, and what we have done is extend that middleware with RFID to enable data to be read in the store warehouse and the distribution center," she pointed out.

By integrating RFID tags with middleware, retailers gain the ability to manage what is happening at the edge of their businesses. Companies see it as a way to streamline their processes, and how they can get information to their partners and clients.

Distributors will benefit by having suppliers that are more responsive to their needs. Just as the tracking IDs on parcels today make recipients feel more secure to know whether something indeed has been shipped, RIFD will give suppliers the same visibility, but with more detail than just looking at a shipping number.

RFID more than a substitute for barcodes

RFID is not just a replacement for barcode; it is a transformational technology that can help reduce waste, curtail theft, manage inventory, streamline logistics and even increase productivity.

RFID applications will also be used in healthcare (for monitoring patients), construction (for managing projects and equipment), and even transportation (for monitoring baggage and passengers in airports).

RFID tags use a microchip and antenna to collect and emit data about all of the products on a pallet, eliminating the need for workers to scan individual bar codes.

RFID tags can help vendors and retailers know where merchandise is in the supply chain, allowing Wal-Mart to achieve better in-stock levels. The technology also can help retailers more quickly pull items from shelves in the case of a recall or the expiration of perishable food.

Consumer-privacy advocates have worried that RFID tags won't stop collecting information after a product leaves the store, but industry officials have stated that tagging won't occur on individual items for years.

Among the issues being considered by various parties interested in RDIF include: reaching an industry standard for the technology and having suppliers figure out how they can use the massive amount of data collected through RFID tagging.

While retailers such as Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. Inc. also have been working on RFID plans, Wal-Mart has been at the forefront of U.S. merchants unveiling the technology. The world's largest retailer expects to be using RFID in 12 distribution centers and 600 stores and it has told its next 200 largest suppliers that they need to be applying RFID tags by January, 2006.

Some negative aspects of RFID usage

The passive Class 1 RFID tags and the readers that use radio frequency signals to get information from the labels aren't capable of achieving 100 percent success in noisy warehouses loaded with signal-distorting metal objects; and the relatively weak signals from the Class 1 readers will have loads of trouble figuring out the contents of cases of, say, Clairol shampoo or Palmolive dish soap, since those signals don't propagate well through liquid.

Despite the hoopla and the apparent need, RFID's best chance for success won't be in retail. Some believe that it will be in manufacturing, particularly among makers of big-ticket items. That's because the RFID labels and readers to be used there will be either Class 3 or 4 technology. Those RFID tags include a battery with an estimated three to five-year life span and readers that use a strong enough signals to work well in a real-world warehouse and everyday manufacturing floor. They'll even figure out what's inside a case of shampoo or a pallet with kegs of beer.

With an integrated battery on an RFID tag, it is possible to add memory to the label. With memory, application writers can expand beyond the simpler expectations retailers have about using RFID to improve inventory control.

In the future, battery- and memory-assisted RFID tags and readers might be used not just to identify an object's contents, but to locate it, too; for example, a hospital could tag its costly instruments and use a triangulation of readers to find them when they go missing, as happens so often in busy, sprawling hospitals where everyone is sharing pricey gear.

Class 3 and 4 RFID products are much more expensive; tags are U.S.$25 to $30 versus 50 cents or so for the Class 1 labels that Wal-Mart's partners are applying today. Currently the objects tagged with these expensive labels have a far, far greater value than consumer products found on a retailer's shelves.

Automakers can use Class 3 and 4 tags to alert inventory systems that the expensive products from their Tier 1 suppliers are waiting to be offloaded from trucks; or from the transportation industry, where railcar owners can keep track of rolling stock and their contents and schedules. The best RFID work will be done at the high end.

Other criticisms of RFID

The technology really doesn't work the way it should. You really can't point an RFID reader at a pallet and be sure of getting a response from the tags on each carton. All those dreams of RFID visionaries may come true someday, but not in time for your project. RFID just doesn't work yet. This stuff really isn't ready.

This is no ordinary IT project. One in five RFID tags dies. The signals are blocked by metal in products, by shiny packaging, even by thick liquids. If you expect RFID to work as advertised, your project will be a long, horrible waking nightmare and it will fail. Everyone connected with it will want to kill you for putting them through it.

For those who have been cave dwellers over the last few years, RFIDs are small electronic devices, normally with no battery or power supply, that can interact wirelessly to identify themselves to a scanner.

The best-known examples are the very simple devices that companies such as Wal-Mart are asking suppliers to put on pallets of goods and that drug companies are beginning to attach to containers in the distribution chain. These RFIDs are basically wireless bar codes that respond with a unique serial number when queried by a wireless scanner. Companies with large database infrastructures, like Wal-Mart, can keep track of where individual cartons of goods are in their supply chain or, someday far too soon, what individual products are in a shopper's physical cart.

Not all RFIDs are that simple. Some, like those being considered for the next generation of U.S. passports, can report back a bunch of passport-holder-specific data. Others, like the electronic key used in some cars and the ExxonMobil SpeedPass, include a cryptographic challenge-response interaction in an attempt to make sure that the RFID is not counterfeit.

Ford chose weak security for its keys

These have not been particularly good days for the RFID business. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and RSA Laboratories have shown that the RFID used in the SpeedPass and in the keys for some Ford vehicles can be easily spoofed. The researchers demonstrated that the RFID chips used weak encryption keys that can be broken within a few hours. Imagine thieves scanning for car owners' encrypted keys while standing next to the car owners on elevators. The thieves then could break the encrypted keys and steal the car using normal car burglary tools, knowing that they could fool the electronic interlock into thinking they had the right key.

Texas Instruments, which makes the circuits used in the Ford keys and the SpeedPass, makes similar circuits with longer and harder-to-break keys; but Ford and Exxon Mobil decided to use the less expensive, weaker chips. Texas Instruments is not immune from blame here, as it is using a secret encryption algorithm, that violates the most basic of good encryption rules.

Passports that can be covertly read from 30 feet

At the same time, the U.S. National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has shown that RFIDs to be used in U.S. passports can be read from as far away as 30 feet. This would make it easy to spot people carrying U.S. passports and capture information about them, and maybe even the passport holders themselves.

Cadaver problems and RFID

The University of California is considering using barcodes and RFID tags to keep track of the bodies donated to medical research, following a series of scandals involving illegal trading in body parts.

Last year, the director of the university's "Willed Bodies" program and one other person at UCLA was arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into illegal sale of body parts. Courts suspended the program pending completion of the investigation. As yet, no charges have been filed.

Some people who planned to leave their bodies to science withdrew their offers after the news broke. In response, the university proposed a series of reforms to process the way cadavers will be managed, including the use of barcodes and RFID tags. Organs removed from a corpse would most likely be tagged, too.

Pentagon tests temperature sensors on food rations

In its simplest form, radio frequency identification is a method to track what is inside a case, pallet or shipping container full of goods, but the evolving technology is more than a replacement for bar codes.

RFID eventually will reach every step of the supply chain and even be an integral part of other tasks; such as, tamper protection and quality control.

With mandates for RFID use being implemented by the Defense Department as well as companies; such as, Wal-Mart, contractors would do well to be knowledgeable about the increasingly more sophisticated technology.

Pentagon officials turned to RFID around 1992 during the Persian Gulf War to help the services determine the contents of supply containers and to provide end-to-end visibility of the supply chain.

Since then, the Pentagon has expanded its use of RFID, but achieving complete visibility of the supply chain is still a work in progress. The challenges they're facing today is what they call the "last mile". It's essentially when supplies get to a distribution point and are disaggregated out to the users. It is at that point they lose visibility into that piece of the supply chain.

An integral part of achieving a visibility chain from end to end will be using both active and passive RFID tags. Active tags have a battery, can be read from 300 feet away and hold more data than a passive tag. Passive tags generally have a three-foot to 10-foot range and hold less data, but also cost less.

A combination of the two, along with other software, hardware and technology, likely will be the way to achieve end-to-end visibility. If one looks at what goes on in a supply chain, there are many things that are happening: An item is put into a carton, a carton is put on a pallet, pallets go into containers which finally get put on some type of vehicle. Then the process happens in reverse at the destination.

On a pallet full of a single type of item, a passive tag would be appropriate; however, a pallet that is going to be taken apart and restocked several times in the supply chain might need an active tag, so the data can be rewritten every time the pallet is altered.

A truck-sized shipping container probably would get an active tag to get the reading range and ability to store the shipping manifest. The ability to store lots of data on a tag is important in a combat situation, for example, where connection to a network might be impossible.

Another technology being researched is battery-assisted passive RFID tags. The battery assistance adds sensors to passive tags to monitor conditions such as temperature and shock. The technology was tested in shipping of combat rations. The program examined the tracking capabilities of an RFID system along with those of temperatures sensors.

Food is a very temperature-sensitive commodity. The Pentagon tested the potential for sensor technology by creating a metric that determined the condition of rations from a temperature reading captured by the tags. Food rations will be among the first four commodities the Defense Department tracks at the case level using passive RFID. By 2007, nearly all goods are scheduled to have RFID tags. An increased demand for RFID networks will be integrated with satellite and GPS transponders to further extend the range of visibility.

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