December 2004 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

Sensing the Future

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If you think that RFID and its tempestuous application is the only game in town, think again. It isn't. Bar codes are still everywhere, and in most cases are doing a fine job. Remember, bar codes and RFID can, and will, work in tandem, with each serving the application it fits best.

Nevertheless we may well be entering an era of new sensor and actuator technology that could deeply affect communication, workflow, and supply chains in ways we have not yet imagined. How many of us saw RFID coming three years ago?

A host of sensors are currently on the market; some are micro in size while others remain macro. These sensors measure everything: proximity, pressure, positioning, imaging, speed, motion, temperature, electrical properties, chemical properties, flow, and level.

Variations on many of these sensors are also available, depending on the type of market or the application's specifications: motor vehicle, including trucks; industrial; military/aerospace; consumer/household; electronic security; medical; and information technology. In most cases, the cost of sensors continues to come down.

It is a mistake to assume that any of these sensors are incapable of taking a new turn and giving bar codes and RFID a run for their money. In some cases, new developments will be inventions looking for a market or market conditions looking for an inventive solution.

Here is a rundown of some new sensor and actuator technology.

Near Field Communication (NFC), sometimes called Near Field Magnetic Communication (NFMC). With this technology, as with RFID, the tag and the reader have no direct contact between them, which differentiates it from bar codes.

NFC was jointly developed by Sony and Philips, and combines Philips' Milfare technology with Sony's FeliCa contactless card technology. An example of NFC at work is a card that users merely slap on the reader; they need not swipe the card. The information is contained in the tag and can be accessed by a remote reader.

The NFC tag does not emit radio frequency, but instead uses magnetic impulses to relay the information. These cards are already in use in Hong Kong and other areas of the world.

Magnetic induction communications technology has been around for decades and offers an alternative to conventional radio frequency wireless communication systems, which are best for transmitting large amounts of data over long distances.

But, conventional wireless systems consume a great deal of power, and they are open to security issues through widespread broadcasting, interference problems, and possible crowding among devices.

In contrast, magnetic communication operates in a 13.5-MHz low-frequency industrial and medical band. This creates a three-dimensional bubble that envelopes the user's specific or personal space. The system is both secure and private, and takes advantage of an efficient use of power and bandwidth at low cost.

Beyond Current Applications

Forward-thinking companies should start looking at applications that go beyond what is currently available. For instance, foneGEAR makes a wireless headset that uses an enhanced form of magnetic communication developed by Aura Communications. This product makes use of NFC's bubble-like privacy in the communication process.

IBM's sensor and actuator solutions division has, like so many other sensor driver organizations, focused on RFID in applications as varied as Metro department store, the Department of Defense, and International Postal Corporation. Along with the Post Office, IBM will test half a million letters that carry RFID transponders and can be read automatically. IBM is also helping the DoD in applying RFID to 43,000 suppliers, no mean task.

At the sensor and actuator division, however, IBM realizes that RFID is only one of many sensor or actuator directions that it can investigate. As it moves forward, IBM may focus its effort on such targets as biometrics, chemicals, and petroleum monitoring.

One such application uses embedded sensors to measure temperatures and fluid types inside oil pipelines for Chevron Corp. This information can be communicated via satellite to a billing system for automated billing usage fees, among other tasks.

The smart shelf is a store or warehouse shelf that is able to take stock of itself using RFID technology. It provides real-time inventory to software that could trigger a stock replenishment order, or measure the flow of goods in a specific marketing campaign.

Through a partnership between SAMSys and LG&P, smart shelf store fixtures are being developed and tested by companies including International Paper and Revlon. Wal-Mart planned to test smart shelf technology, but has backed out. Maybe the shelves are not as smart as they think they are, or perhaps Wal-Mart is just being cautious because smart shelf costs are not yet fully established.

Beyond the cost of the shelving itself are the costs of change and installation. There are enormous consequences to consider before applying hundreds of smart shelf installations. Using RFID tags on products within the Wal-Mart supply chain may be enough to swallow at the moment.

RFID technology is a subset of RF technology, which includes such big players as advanced cellular technology, digital radio, HDTV, wireless networks, RF plasma, and GPS. RF technology is a lot more than just a healthy market. In 2003, the market represented more than $24 billion, and will escalate to more than $100 billion by 2008, according to Electronics magazine. This figure includes both RFID and alternate methodologies.

Planning for, analyzing, purchasing, and installing new communications technology is dominating both our mindset and our pocketbooks.

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