June 2007

Asset Tracking and Identification

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RFID solutions for the government can address a wide range of applications. Government agencies around the world are using RFID and sensors for tracking a variety of assets like shipments, high-value equipment and personnel. There are solutions to address national security issue involving emergency response systems.Other major initiatives at government agencies that use or propose to use the technology include physical access control and tracking of assets, documents, or materials.

RFID is arguably a very useful and interesting technology with far reaching implications and wide range of applications. At the core, RFID is a tracking technology which can help track and identify an asset uniquely. This technology when combined with sensors and actuators like the ones that can detect and record temperature and pressure of an asset, can be effectively used in cold chain applications by generating and sending alerts when such items move through the supply chain.

Also, with the advent of standards like EPC Gen 2, RFID technologies offer many more features which enable the reader to identify multiple tags in its vicinity. This is especially useful in large production environments where there is a high traffic of asset movement.

The technology has moved away from hype cycle and is being considered as the next mainstream application. This has been made possible by the madantes by organizations like Wal-Mart and U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) to their suppliers to tag their products. Also, the acceptance of RFID is more evident with companies across verticals deploying RFID pilot projects and evaluating areas to position this technology to enhance their business process and realise Return on Investment (ROI).

Its worth noting that US and UK governments have enforced compliance regulations like Sarbanes Oxley, which requires businesses to keep a record of all electronic transactions and communications to reduce fraud and improve financial transparency using Auditing techniques. Businesses which have to compy to these regualations are turning towards RFID which  provides visibility and transparency.

RFID Solutions in Action

Asset Tracking: RFID solution has been widely used in many industries to track high-value assets. In fact, asset tracking and inventory management can help organisations limit the problems related to inventory management, material tracking and supply chain processes. Not only at the factory floor where real time data needs to be pulled out and fed into the backend databases and ERP systems, but also, the system can be used to know a product's exact location, serial number, colour and even place of assembly to help eliminate instances when an item is out of stock. These solutions also provide immediate productivity benefits by automating data capture and verification to streamline inventory management at the case and pallet level.

Government agencies across the world are piloting the asset tracking application for electronically tracking and streamlining their in-bound and out-bound logistics.  A good example of this is the United States Department of Defence who was an early adoptor of this technology and has deployed RFID for streamlining its supply chain and improving business process in collaboration with their suppliers. 

Transportation and Logistics: RFID solutions has a huge impact in the travel and transportation industry and can cover a wide range of applications ranging from supply chain management for assets such as railway wagons, trucks/trailers, containers, pallets/cases, racks and bins to help agencies access more accurate and timely data to manage their assets. These solutions are available to help companies improve efficiencies or enhance services and are also applicable to shipping and container transportation business.

One of the early adoptors of this technology in transportation sector has been the railways. Railways in US and Germany are using RFID for tracking wagons and cargo by embedding RFID chips inside them, which transmit to the readers that are strategically placed near the tracks. The information is then collated by a centralised server and allows the rail yard employees to get in-transit visibility, sequence, maintenance status and to analyse freight utilisation. The system in conjunction with sensors can also help monitor the health of the wagons and also doubles up as security mechanism to indicate if the lock of the wagon is compromised because of theft.

Emergency Response System and Security: Solutions involving RFID, wireless, sensor networks and mobile computers can provide automated data capture to make critical information available for fire, police and other emergency teams to rush and co-ordinate their responses during an emergency. Several trials are already underway where all the emergency teams (hospital, ambulance services and police) are networked and special RFID cards (RFID wrist bands) are given to patients during an emergency. The para-medics hold a mobile computing device with a RFID reader near the card and thus obtain critical patient information required to administer immediate medical treatment to stabilise a patient in critical condition during transport to the hospital. When the patient arrives at the hospital, the card is again scanned and the right doctors and nurses are intimated to provide their services. The hospital management systems can also be integrated to automatically capture the patient's details and track the patient's progress.

Real time location tracking solutions involving RFID and wireless can help monitor the location of employees, contractors and visitors for security reasons and in case of emergency situations. The technology is also being employed to monitor the location and condition of key assets for maintenance purposes and to ensure that equipment is up and running safely. Information gathered from these RFID devices provides critical data to aid in compliance of stringent regulations for safety and security industry-wide.

Location awareness and safety solutions can also enable you to remotely track the location of many different kinds of high value assets. RFID tags can be attached to critical tools, materials and other items and gauge when and where the assets are being used. With the help of such solutions, you can know as to which approved ID badges are in a problem area and which of them are not. Should there be an emergency, rescue personnel will be directed to isolated parties more quickly. Companies like British Petroleum have deployed RFID technology to get plant wide tracking of the employee in real time for security reasons.

Recommendations and Roadmap

RFID represents a significant, transformational change and adoption of the same is increasing now, thanks to lower costs, good understanding of this solution, and the need for new technology levers. However, it is not without its challenges and choosing the right deployment approach is a critical factor. The recommendation is to follow a three phased approach for a successful RFID deployment.

There are other challenges as well pertaining to readiness of the backend infrastructure to accept the volume of data that RFID generates. The RFID readers scan continuously for nearby tags, several times per second. As a result, many networks produce an abundance of raw data every day, much of which has little or no value. While there are various approaches to solving this problem, it is evident that an effective means of filtering and managing meaningful data is needed to realise the value of RFID.

While there is a plethora of options available in the market for RFID middleware products, care should be taken to evaluate their different features apart from the core features of filtering, routing and reader integration. The middleware product should be open standards based and auto-id (Barcode/RFID) hardware agnostic. The application platform should follow a holistic distributed architecture which helps you align your business process and needs to be scalable enough to deploy a small pilot translating it to a full fledged implementation. The multi-tiered architecture will provide flexibility and scalability to maximise business value capture. RFID middleware providers can be classified into four categories, RFID pure play vendors, application vendors, platform specialists, integration experts. Choosing the right type of provider depends on the architecture that enables integration and business process management, which is vital factor for RFID deployments.

Summary

Although there is a significant amount of applications available for RFID, every government agency is faced with questions on privacy issues and has to deal with budget constraints to pursue this technology. The recommendation is to learn by piloting, ramping up knowledge and organise for success. Also, determining the economics and optimal deployment strategy to suit your business is essential and can be achieved by defining new process to take advantage of new data visibility. Until policies on security and privacy evolve, focus on clearly articulating your execution roadmap is important.  

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