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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The challenge of unified RFID
The Centre for Distributed Automation and Control in the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University is at the forefront of research into the development and use of RFID systems. Our experience over the past six years has shown time and again that real business benefits only flow with broad cross supply chain standardised adoption.
Back in 2000 we were invited by MIT to take part in the Auto-ID Center project. By the end of this focussed research programme in 2003 over 100 companies representing the end-users (consumer goods manufacturers and retailers) and the technology vendor community had contributed more than $15 m US to fund research at six centres around the world.
This programme delivered research findings that allowed: standardisation process to occur; the cost of the technology to be driven down; adoption trials to be run to demonstrate the technology in action; and the identification of business benefits. This has driven implementation in the consumer goods sector at case level but adoption at item level is waiting for further technology cost reductions.
Out of this initial work the Auto-ID Labs and EPCglobal standards organisation were born. The Auto-ID Labs are a global network of academic research laboratories in the field of RFID. They are now seven of the worlds most renowned research universities involved leading research in RFID.
In parallel with the consumer goods sector, trials of the technology by pharmaceutical companies are now driving the adoption of RFID more deeply into manufacturing. Products can be of higher value than consumer goods and this coupled with taxing regulatory requirements have also driven adoption. Challenging research areas in this sector include traceability and provenance in the face of counterfeit drugs, issues of data security for the patient and the supplier and the susceptibility of drug molecules to RF damage.
Following both the consumer goods and pharmaceutical supply chains, the aerospace sector has been kick started by Airbus Boeing RFID global aviation initiative. This has brought together the worldwide community to drive unified adoption standards. The high value of aerospace components makes adoption less sensitive to the cost of the technology, but this sector faces other challenges. It is already populated with several standards bodies working in this industry which has a heavy legislative burden. There are the technical challenges of tagging metal components, some of which can have very long lifetimes. Security issues and the problems of counterfeit parts are also issues that the industry wants to see tackled with automated identification solutions. Finally Boeing has laid down a challenge to the technology providers to give them tags with 64 k of memory which raise research issues in data synchronisation.
The aerospace sector is seen as the leader in implementation over the next five years. This creates a need for research to solve the challenges that the industry faces. By taking lessons and experience from our work with other industries we want to lead such research. We have already begun and are now seeking research collaborators from the academic community and support from the providers of the technology. If you are interested in our work in this area please contact us or go to our web site at www.aero-id.org.
Finally a reminder on the limitations of RFID technology. On its own it cannot deliver benefits: only when used in conjunction with effective information management systems can it help to improve decisions and operations in the supply chain. No sensor is an island!
Duncan McFarlane and Andrew ShawBased at Auto-ID Lab, Institute for Manufacturing, Cambridge, UK