This piece was written to accompany the feature story, "RFIDs: More Versatile Than Bar Codes," in the July 2001 issue of Field Force Automation magazine.
One can visualize Carl Peterson, president and CEO of Intransit Networks, shaking his head when he discusses the interest shown in the company's micro and macro asset tracking network that uses Bluetooth technology and RFID tags. "PeopleSoft and Siebel are the most enthusiastic of all the people we've contacted," he says, bemused. "More so than the automated data collectors." Which is precisely the group that Intransit set out to help.
Regardless of that recent discovery, he says that customers have pressured automated data collectors because there are so many blind spots within the supply chain, but he claims there aren't any within Intransit's solution. "We are going to be partners with many companies," Peterson continues. "We're working on letters of intent right now--some of these are already partners with big companies--to show what we can do."
Peterson predicts that there will be many applications using RFIDs that go beyond today's scope of taking the place of or complementing bar codes. "RFID has good potential when it becomes less costly," he adds. "When it does that, it will be a new day. RFIDs will reduce or eliminate the human error behind data entry using scanners. If you don't have that problem, you don't need RFID."
There are several types of RFID tags. Passive tags don't have batteries but can be practical for storing and transmitting data wirelessly by a reader. These include uses such as building access cards or shoplifting prevention tags.
Semi passive tags might have a three, five or seven year battery life. Good for intermediate applications, these tags provide a "little bit of a kick in the pants for three- to five-meter transmissions." Active tags use low-power radio signals.
"Intransit's system could never be achieved through bar codes and conventional reader technology," says Peterson. "For one thing, bar codes need more human intervention to do all the scanning; our system is a big time saver in that respect. The ROI is more obvious because the application is broader."
The repeaters, which are Bluetooth modules with batteries and intelligent software, can read passive and semi passive tags from a distance of five meters. Although each module is $25, Peterson refers to Moore's law when he explains that there is a decrease in the modules' cost over time (with performance). "The Bluetooth module contains proprietary material and that information is sent back instantaneously. It brings the readers to the goods rather than the goods to the readers. And it does so on a scale that was never possible before. It's now possible to inventory everything in the warehouse with a click of a mouse."
For example, a reader can scan each box on a pallet that has a tag. Peterson likens this to someone taking roll call. The user instantly knows no only what items on are the pallet but whatever information, if any, has been written to the tags. Also, if the user enters a serial number on the Web-based program, the system can locate that item's precise location and provide whatever information is on the tag. "The item doesn't have to pass through a portal anymore," says Peterson.
In referring to Intransit's supply chain visibility product, Peterson explains that the company does not expect users to remove its legacy equipment to use Intransit's system. He also warns potential customers not to "expect the cost of the wireless tag to be economically justified, at least not on the surface. Users must be willing to pay x amount for the grade of service that they will receive and be able to provide for their customers-and the scalability of the service is there. However, the standard (Bluetooth) will go down as it proliferates into the marketplace. "There's been a lot of talk about Bluetooth," says Peterson. "It's had a bad rap because the media raised the bar in anticipation of this technology, and there's trouble with interoperability. Those details will be worked out."
As for the automation of serial numbers, GPS locations and time, he's not kidding himself. "It will take time for the industry to gain confidence in that."
Peterson gives many of Intransit's competitors credit for being pioneers in real-time data collection but adds that his company's solution also enables wirelessly monitoring in trucks. "We have the same approach," he admits, "but we've found a way to do this less expensively. Bless them, I hope they forge ahead; we'll be happy to corner second place in this market."
Lest bar code fans get insulted, Peterson is by no means putting them down. "You can't beat them--bar coding is a great innovation," he says. "Bar coding is batch; RFID is real time. That's the bottom line. RFID is in its youth and will have its own place in the sun. The only thing that I can say for sure is that there is so much more that can be done with these tags." For more information on Intransit, go to www.intransitnetworks.com
Some possible applications needing dynamic data collection that a bar code simply can't muster:
Collecting car rental data. Rather than waiting for a person to come check you out of a car at a drop-off location, information in an RFID tag could relay the time the car arrived, how many miles were driven since the car was rented and how much gas is in the tank.
Luggage: Have the airlines ever lost your luggage while you were traveling? Passive tags can be a fairly inexpensive and reusable solution. A Bluetooth module on the wall next to the conveyor belt could track if a suitcase was in the right place based on information programmed into the tag, such as airline, flight number and final destination.
Asset protection: Say there's a remote construction site that has a Scout and a Bluetooth module that can track everything within an eighth of a mile. Just place RFID tags on heavy equipment, generators and supplies and you've got a motion detector. "If a tractor moves at 3 am when it's not supposed to," explains Peterson, "the information is sent to the Scout, which will forward it to the AAA. From their database, the call can go to the sheriff."