Industry applications were abundant at RFID LIVE, including these in retail, healthcare, aerospace, and IT asset tracking.
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There was a lot to see at RFID Journal LIVE! this year. New life has been breathed into the RFID industry, in no small part due to the surge in item-level tagging in retail. But other industry-specific applications abound as well. Here we look at some highlights from the show in retail and other industry/application sectors.
Retail, especially item-level tagging of apparel, has been one of the hottest areas of growth for RFID in recent times. This surge bodes well for the RFID businesses of the two big EAS vendors, Tyco/Sensormatic and Checkpoint. They have been working on and refining their RFID strategies for years and it is paying off. Tyco said that many of their retailer customers do EAS source tagging, and many of the apparel retailers recirculate the tags after each use. This makes it easier to start introducing RFID, as it is simply a matter of introducing dual mode (EAS + RFID) tags into the recirculation stream and replacing the pedestals at the store with dual mode pedestals. A retailer can be very targeted in selecting goods to be migrated to dual mode tags—lighting up specific categories in specific stores with relatively little disruption and incremental expense. In fact, Tyco has over 750 million dual-technology hard tags (EAS + RFID) in circulation. Both Tyco and Checkpoint are looking for big wins in merchandise visibility, leveraging the same tag for inventory management/accuracy and loss prevention (see Item-level Retail RFID: The Retail Revolution and Why Now for RFID).
Avery Dennison is also doing well in retail and other industries, with over $100M of profitable revenue in their RFID business last year. That business crosses many industries, but retail is driving the biggest growth. They point out that it took six years until they shipped their first billion UHF tags in April 2011, but less than 18 months to ship the second billion in the fall of last year, and they expect to sell their three billionth tag before the end of this year. Now that’s a lot of tags! At RFID Live, they showed seven new tags this year, with chips from NXP, EM, and Impinj, including an on-metal UHF passive tag with about one foot read range and a small form factor hang tag. Avery has a substantial service bureau business located near the major apparel manufacturer centers around the world. They are now able to do high-end graphic tags combined with small form factor RFID, meaning image-sensitive brands no longer need a separate RFID tag and graphical tag.
Motorola Solutions is another company that is doing well in retail RFID. They have been adding two or three new major retail accounts each year to their RFID business, with major accounts such as Macys, Walmart, JC Penney, and Lord & Taylors under their belt (they claim that 7 of the top 30 retailers are using Motorola). They said that across eight of the retailers they work with, the retailers have seen revenue increases in the range of 3% to 14% uplift due to reduction of out-of-stocks and better management of inventory. Those are impressive numbers. Virtually all of their retail customers continue to expand into other categories. Outside of retail, Motorola works through partners, such as RFID Global Solutions in areas like IT asset tracking or document tracking. See "Motorola Solutions Shows Off Their Retail Mojo in SoHo"
IT Asset Tracking
RFID Global Solutions, one of the leading RFID system integrators for the past decade, has evolved into a total solution company. They created Visi-Trac, a multi-purpose software platform (launched in 2009 with a cloud version in 2010) that provides real-time visibility for a variety of asset tracking and WIP tracking applications using RFID. This is a broad solution spanning data capture through business intelligence and visualization. RFID Global’s largest area of business is in IT Asset Tracking, a fast-growing use of RFID. This includes both closed data centers, and the more open world of desktop IT (desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and phones) which is more of a traditional mobile asset management application. Though a data center may look static, with assets mounted on fixed racks, these are actually very dynamic environments. Equipment is constantly being moved, added, reconfigured, consolidated, removed, and repaired. Large data centers can be hundreds of thousands of square feet in size and contain tens of thousands of servers, with row upon row of identical-looking devices seemingly stretching as far as the eye can see. Try finding a needle in that hay stack!
RFID Global uses RF Code’s hardware in these large data centers. RF Code showed their active tag combined with an Infrared (IR) sensor to provide location information. An IR emitter, with a unique location ID, is placed in each rack. The active tag, attached to each server or other component (disk drive array, network router, etc.) has an IR sensor that reads the unique location ID and transmits it along with its own unique ID identifying which IT asset is in which rack. This helps tremendously in sending technicians precisely to the right rack to execute move, add, and change orders.
RFID Global Solutions launched their healthcare practice in 2010. It is a holistic solution, providing real-time location of patients and staff, and equipment, and a consumable supplies platform, linking consumables to the point-of-care. They also have a patient flow module, showing the location and disposition of patients, movements and wander management, and treatment steps taken, such as when medication has been given to the patient.
Aerospace was one of the first verticals for RFID Global, and their largest, after IT asset tracking. Aircraft assembly plants can be literally millions of square feet in size—50 acres or more inside a single massive building. RFID Global helps track work-in-progress assemblies, parts, tools, as well as more esoteric material handling requirements such as time-out-of-freezer and expiration dates for composites and cold chain sealants that are temperature sensitive. Many of these are not just efficiencies issues, but impact the safety, reliability, and regulatory compliance of the craft. Boeing and Airbus have led the way and their suppliers are being asked to provide RFID tagged parts as they come in.
Another company with a long-term presence in aerospace is the middleware provider OAT Systems, a part of Checkpoint. One of their clients is ATK, a $4.5B global designer/manufacturer of highly-engineered materials and products for aerospace and defense. ATK has built a “visual factory” that is instrumented to track everything from raw material to WIP to Tooling. They are one of only a few that have gotten good at working with advanced composites, which can be tricky, due to temperature requirements (must be kept frozen at around 0⁰ F until use), shelf life (typically just 3 months), and other handling and process complexities. Most manufacturers track perishables using a clipboard. If something looks questionable, they just throw it. ATK tags their materials with RFID and uses OAT’s middleware to run their visual factory, which has a visual monitor outside each freezer that shows exactly what is in each freezer and what should be used first. Then they track time-out-of-freezer. They also track how many times the tooling that holds the materials goes in the autoclave oven. With RFID, all of this is done automatically. These initiatives are of course first about quality control and compliance (both Airbus and Boeing do surprise compliance audits). But it is also about speed and efficiency. ATK’s production for Airbus has to increase by a factor of 12 over the next two years. They need automation to reliably keep up the pace.
Paris-based MAINtag only does aerospace and only flyable parts, the parts comprising the plane. Now there’s a company with focus. I spoke with Alexis Beurdeley, Vice President of MAINtag Americas, who told me they were number one in this market. MAINtag, who recently opened a US subsidiary headquartered in Atlanta, makes their own high memory chip, their own tags, and their own software. They provide tags to over 50 suppliers to Airbus and Boeing for things like life vests, oxygen generators (overhead), electronics, landing gears, hydraulics, in-flight entertainment system components, and more. MAINtag designs tags specifically for each part. For example, they have developed an ‘HT’ high temperature tag for parts exposed to a lot of heat (well over 450⁰ F). Some of these can be big labor savers—for example the airline operator is supposed to check the expiration date of each lifejacket on a regular basis. For a 777, it takes two people about four hours to manually check those. With RFID-tagged vests, it takes one person a couple of minutes.
Another big application for MAINtag is maintenance. For this they use high memory tags. Whenever repair or maintenance is done on a part or assembly, whether done in the shop or in the field, information is written onto the tag about what was done, when, where, and by whom. This provides a history that travels with the part or assembly, starting with the birth record written at the time the part is manufactured, which includes things like manufacturers ID/CAGE code, part number, serial number, date of manufacture, etc. The data all complies with the ATA 2000 spec. Part of the ROI is realized when different companies are touching the part. For example, a Boeing 777 belonging to Air France might be receiving maintenance from their partner, Delta, or from a third party. Now all parties are on the same page about what has been done to each component. It also ensures continuity upon resale of the plane, and generates fewer errors than paper systems.
In the next part of this article, we look at other application-specific uses I saw at RFID LIVE, including those in manufacturing, cattle tracking, returnable transport items, paper pulp, and plant trolleys. And this is just a sampling of the amazingly broad array of applications possible with this technology.