Wireless Gains As A Critical Supply-Chain Tool

Sept. 29, 2010
The ability to mix and match wireless devices and services has opened up new opportunities for tailored supply-chain solutions.

Jim O’Hagan

More wireless products and services are gaining acceptance as critical tools in the supply chain. While barcode scanning represents most data-capture applications today, there are several other options, and most of them are much more sophisticated and flexible. At the same time, new and emerging standards are helping to ensure cross-vendor interoperability and promote greater use of wireless technologies in supply-chain applications.

“More options exist than ever before,” says Todd J. Carey, regional director of the west region for Barcoding Inc. “WLANs (wireless local-area networks), Wi-Fi, cellular, and GPS have remained the wireless cornerstones in supply-chain technology. But the trend we’re seeing is more of our customers considering smart phones, iPads, and netbooks for management and supervisors for auditing, surveys, and other simple field functions where the working conditions can be somewhat controlled.”

Symbol Technologies says that devices need to offer multiple data-capture technologies right out of the box—or the ability to add technology to the device at a later time. For example, according to Motorola, if you need barcode scanning and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology today, it is much more cost-effective to purchase a single multipurpose device to reduce device and management costs. But if you only need barcode scanning today and you’re just beginning to explore the possibility of adding RFID in your warehouse or yard, you should be able to purchase a device that offers the flexibility to add RFID functionality later to protect your investment.

RFID is already a major factor in supply-chain applications. Reportlinker estimates the value of the entire RFID market for 2010 at $5.63 billion, up from $5.03 billion in 2009. This includes tags, readers, and software/services for RFID cards, labels, fobs, and all other form factors.

And RFID just keeps growing. The U.S. General Services Administration, which manages more than 11% of the government’s total procurement dollars and $24 billion in federal assets, installed a passive ultra-high-frequency (UHF) RFID system based on the EPC Gen 2 standard at its western distribution center in California in July to track the movement of pallets, boxes, and bags through loading docks and into trucks. The GSA expects to expand the system to tag all items.

Wal-Mart, which has already received so much publicity about its use of RFID technology across its entire inventory management and supply-chain system, is reportedly ready to begin testing the placement of RFID tags on individual clothing items. Wal-Mart employees will then be able to use a handheld scanner to gather data that will help the huge chain restock its clothing inventory in real time.

Nearly half (49%) of the companies currently using, developing, or evaluating RFID expect their RFID budgets to increase in 2010, according to a study released earlier this year by ABI Research. Michael Liard, director of the study, says that all of the organizations with rollouts currently in progress intend to increase their RFID budgets next year. Only about 11% of those surveyed said they intend to cut their RFID budgets in 2010.

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The ABI study also identified return-on-investment (ROI) as a critical consideration for most companies thinking about RFID deployment. About 48% of the companies surveyed this year assumed they would recoup their investment within 12 months compared to 37% of those surveyed in 2008.

Wireless Alliances
In one of a number of technology alliances formed to advance the state of the art of wireless in the supply chain, the European Technology Research Institute (ETRI) has joined Sisvel US and the RFID Consortium to take part in the consortium’s joint licensing program for patents essential to further developing and expanding the use of the UHF RFID standard. The frequency used for UHF RFID systems can vary between 860 and 960 MHz. UHF RFID systems operate between 902 and 928 MHz in North America, at 868 MHZ in Europe, and at 950 MHz in Asia (Japan).

ETRI joins the patent owners, 3M, France Telecom, Hewlett Packard, LG Electronics, Motorola, ThingMagic, and Zebra Technologies, to promote the rapid adoption of UHF RFID technology by offering a single license to patents essential to the use of UHF RFID standards owned by participating companies. SisvelS.p.A, founded in Italy with offices in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, manages intellectual property. It will administrate the RFID Consortium licensing program.

“There are many essential patents covering various aspects of UHF RFID technology in multiple countries around the world, creating complex and costly licensing requirements for anyone who wants to manufacture or sell UHF RFID tags and readers,” says Jim O’Hagan (see the figure), a spokesman for the RFID Consortium and director of patents and technology for Zebra Technologies. “Through the RFID Consortium, manufacturers will have access to a single low-cost license to essential patents from multiple leading global firms.”

Participation in the UHF RFID licensing program and the RFID Consortium is open to all holders of patents essential to UHF RFID standards.

The DASH7 Alliance
Savi Technology, Michelin, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Texas Instruments (TI) are among a group of organizations that have formed the cross-industry DASH7 Alliance to expand the use of wireless data technology in their logistics operations. The group’s key role is to ensure cross-vendor interoperability as well as to promote greater use of the ISO 18000-7 wireless data standard. The alliance also wants to develop new wireless data innovations based on the standard, including advanced sensor networks, electronic seals, and mobile phone integration.

“Operating in the license-free 433-MHz spectrum, DASH7 offers multi-kilometer range, multi-year battery life, sensor and security support, and tag-to-tag communications,” says Pat Burns, president of the DASH7 Alliance. “DASH7 devices operate on a single global frequency and are interoperable ‘out of the box’ regardless of application and by design do not require cumbersome application profiles.”

The U.S. Department of Energy and three of its laboratories—Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory—along with the University of Pittsburgh plan to serve as technical advisors to DASH7 Alliance members. The university’s role is to act as the initial test and certification lab for DASH7-enabled products.

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In February 2010, the DASH7 Alliance announced a new program to validate products and services that adhere to the ISO 18000-7 (DASH7) standard. The program is aimed at helping manufacturers, developers and integrators ensure interoperability between wireless sensor networking solutions.

The testing and certification program is run exclusively by MET Laboratories, a company that provides extensive testing and consulting services for manufacturers and consumers of wireless products and systems. MET will also accredit other test labs around the world that seek to become approved DASH7 Certification test centers.

In April, The DASH7 Alliance announced a successful completion of its first round of conformance and interoperability tests for ISO-18000-7 devices. The tests resulted in the verification of more than 20 devices from three separate vendors. The testing procedures were based on the original tests developed by the DoD in support of its RFID III contract, as well as those described in the ISO/IEC 18047-7 conformance specification. DASH7 is the only major wireless sensor networking standard in the world that uses an ISO/IEC standard to define its conformance and interoperability procedures.

(The U.S. Department of Energy and three of its laboratories, along with the University of Pittsburgh, have opted out of initial plans to serve as technical advisors to DASH7 Alliance members and no longer participate in the DASH7 community.)

While the recently announced DASH7 Mode 2.0 supports cryptographic security, Revere Security will focus its SWG activities on defining standards and interoperable security capabilities as well as the most effective approaches to suit the varying memory, computational power, and battery life requirements of wireless devices and network systems.

Mixing/Matching Technologies
Mixing and matching wireless devices and services has become an important part of providing efficiencies and low-cost options to the supply chain. Savi Technology, a Lockheed Martin company and a developer of active RFID software, has partnered with Odin, which makes passive RFID devices, in response to its aerospace, defense, and healthcare sector clients asking for a unified active-passive RFID software platform for multiple uses.

Savi also has updated the portable deployment kits (PDKs) it supplies to the U.S Marine Corps’ Automatic Identification Technology Office for locating, tracking, and managing RFID-tagged supplies in support of the Marines’ operations in Afghanistan. The new kits pull together several wireless tracking and data-collection technologies, including barcodes, 2D barcodes, and active RFID and GPS location systems with satellite communications delivered in a single carrying case with a laptop, handheld computer, mobile reader, printer, software, and communications equipment for asset tracking and cargo and personnel manifesting.

The most recent shipment to the Marines uses RFID, GPS, and Iridium modems to communicate via satellite with the DoD’s In-Transit Visibility Network. The PDKs operate on dual RFID modes with devices based on pre-existing standards or new standards the DoD has adopted based on DASH7. Savi expects PDKs to be used in commercial applications where large and complex supply chains extend to remote locations, such as oil and gas exploration and production, construction, and mining.

TASC Inc., meanwhile, has come up with a new inventory management system for the U.S. Navy that enables Navy warehousing facilities to automatically count and locate RFID-tagged inventory in real time. The software platform integrates a RFID system with an inventory management system. “The system will identify the shipment of the wrong items or, if an item is misplaced, show you exactly where in the warehouse you can find it,” says Pat Talty, mission engineering vice president at TASC.

Formerly a unit of Northrop Grumman, TASC became an independent company in December 2009. Using passive RFID, the TASC system automatically inventories stock count and locations for reconciliation. From automatic stock count and location queries, users receive real-time inventory reports and a three-dimensional graphical presentation of where items are located in the warehouse.

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System Planning Corp., which provides multi-communications for GPS asset tracking and monitoring services, recently joined the DASH7 Alliance to integrate an RFID reader for DASH7 cargo tags into its GlobalTrak asset monitoring units, providing another level of inventory detail for shippers and their supply-chain partners.

“By adding a DASH7 module to wide-area cellular or satcom platforms, end users have an important option across a range of industries since it provides a flexible, mobile backhaul capability for data acquired through a DASH7 tag or reader,” says Pat Burns of the DASH7 Alliance.

How To Use GPS
“For most mobile implementations, our customers now require GPS tracking combined with line of business applications to ensure they have a full view of field operations,” says Barcoding’s Carey. But with so many choices available, he says companies should define their tracking requirements and how they want to utilize the GPS data coming back from the field.

Guard RFID Solutions Inc., which develops active RFID technologies and products for healthcare, industrial, and enterprise applications, also recently joined DASH7. “It gives customers the ability to mix and match devices and products to create solutions better tailored for their needs,” says Zahir Abji, the company’s president and CEO.

The DASH7 standard also supports Texas Instruments’ CC430 line of RF-enabled microcontrollers (MCUs). TI says its monolithic sub-1-GHz RF system-on-a-chip can be designed into devices that are smaller than previously possible, including flexible assemblies. And to enhance DASH7 support, the TI chip uses OpenTag, the open-source firmware available at no cost to DASH7 developers.

Navman Wireless also recently upgraded its Qube 3 GPS vehicle-tracking device, which is a core component of the company’s OnlineAVL2 fleet tracking system. An enhanced tamper detection system protects all connections and efforts to disable the GPS signal to hide unauthorized vehicle use. An eight-day backup battery kicks in if wires are cut. And, a built-in motion sensor alerts dispatchers to off-hours vehicle movement. The Qube 3 optionally connects to Navman Wireless’ mobile devices for communications between dispatchers and drivers in the field.

Another example of working with potential customers is the partnership between Parexel International, a global biopharmaceutical services organization, Stora Enso, a global paper, packaging, and wood products company, and MediXine, a specialist in multimodal communications e-services for health care, to develop a temperature recording process specifically designed and optimized for the clinical trial supply process.

The packaging container for study drugs incorporates an RFID tag for temperature recording and a dedicated compartment for a mobile phone, providing automatic tracking and remote, high-speed transmission of the complete temperature record. The RFID tag records study drug temperature at pre-defined time points, while the mobile-phone application and Web-based portal enable secure, controlled data transmission and access to temperature data in real time between a central hub and an investigative site. Parexel has further simplified the temperature control process by making data available for central analysis immediately upon arrival of the study drug at the investigational site.

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