Sensor nets, RFID poised to change the enterprise

RFID benefits now being confirmed by some early adopters are only the beginning of the impact that pervasive wireless data transfer will have on the enterprise, according to network executives at Computerworld’s Mobile and Wireless World conference.

RFID and a kindred technology, wireless sensor nets, will dramatically change the way companies do business, said executives in conference presentations this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“This is a truly revolutionary technology,” said Phiroz Darukhanavala, CTO of Digital and communications technology for U.K.’s BP, the global oil producer, refiner, and distributor. “It doesn’t have the fanfare of the Internet a few years ago. But in a few years, I think we’ll see that it will have had a greater impact on business processes than the Internet.”

RFID and wireless sensors use wireless connectivity differently. An RFID reader with a radio transceiver sends a signal that activates an antenna and tiny processor attached to or embedded in a pallet, or a case, of razor blades, for example. The antenna reflects back some of the energy and uses that signal to send back a unique ID number, which can be used to track where that pallet or case is from the time its shipped to the manufacturer to, in some cases, when a consumer picks it off a drugstore shelf.

But in wireless sensor nets, small cheap wireless transceivers are married with almost equally small sensors that detect changes in a host of variables like temperature, vibrations, and fluid levels. This data is passed via a gateway to the enterprise net.

Wal-Mart riveted the entire retail industry’s attention on RFID by mandating two years ago that its top suppliers join it in adopting the radio technology. One company working closely with the retail giant in a RFID pilot is Kids Headquarters, New York, N.Y., which claims to be world’s largest maker of children’s clothing. “There are no home runs with RFID,” says Kevin Downs, CTO for Kids Headquarters. “But there are lots of single and doubles. And as anyone knows who follows baseball, they add up to a lot of runs.”

Towns ran through a long list of benefits and opportunities that the RFID pilot confirmed. These include:

— Reducing out-of-stock events, which boosts revenue and keeps customers satisfied.

— Reducing inventory, and therefore the cost of carrying that inventory.

— Reducing human errors by automating the process of data collection.

— Simply finding products more quickly in a store’s back room.

— Cutting the time to be paid by Wal-Mart for product from 60 days or more to less than two weeks.

The clothing wholesaler is adopting Infosys’ Microsoft.Net-based RFID solution. But RFID itself is already being applied far beyond the packaged goods supply chain. Hospitals are becoming a hotbed of RFID innovation. “Our next step is to take RFID and put it on the patient,” said John Wade, CIO for Saint Luke’s Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri. “We can use it for tracking patients who may be wandering around because they’re lost or suffering from dementia.”

Other uses include directing doctors or nurses to the RFID-based location of specific patients, instead of having to hunt for them from one hospital department to another. “It will make us more efficient, and more productive, Wade said.

That same promise has been driving a growing range of wireless sensor projects at BP.

“Supply chain optimization, which is what the press has been focused on with Wal-Mart, is only one of the applications that can RFID [and wireless sensors] can perform,” says BP’s Darukhanavala. For the past two years, BP has been creating what it dubs “sensory networks” for vehicle delivery and tracking, for real time field processes, people tracking in dangerous plans, for asset tracking, and remote monitoring.

A U.K. test attached wireless ultrasonic sensors to propane gas tanks, which transmitted data on how propone was left in the tank. Customer complaints dropped by 70% and deliveries become more efficient.

BP’s 18,000 rail cars in the U.S., are being outfitted with wireless sensors that track a range of variables, for both the petroleum products being carried and the cars themselves. Once rail cars enter a customer’s site, they become invisible to the railroad’s tracking system, and BP and other railcar owners easily lose track of them.

The new sensor network will pinpoint their locations, and help monitor the condition of both the railcars and their contents. One sensor can detect severe jolts to a railcar, another whether a tank car hatch has been opened. Data and alerts are fed wirelessly to a command center. On the Trans Alaska Pipeline, BP is running a pilot with half-dozen wireless sensors constantly testing for corrosion.

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