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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Opt-in RFID program tracks Bosch power tools
Opt-in RFID program tracks Bosch power tools
Keywords: Identification, Sensors
Tracking tools at a construction site can be like trying to hunt down dandelion floss in a shifting wind. Neat rows of power tools begin their day in a tool crib only to scatter with workers going to all points of a jobsite. Some tools go for repairs or maintenance. Others transfer to where they are needed at another site.
Some tools leave and never return. Jobsite equipment theft, whether by workers or outside thieves, costs the construction industry up to a billion dollars per year, according to a 2004 study by the National Equipment Register. Construction contractors deal with these equipment difficulties throughout the building season.
Bosch power tools, through its Bosch Digital Power Tools Division, is easing those difficulties with a new program called Safe & Sounde. Customers who opt into the program can order their power tools fitted with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags or insert tags into pre-existing tools from Bosch or other manufacturers. Using a system developed by Blue Dot Solutions and RFID equipment from Intermec, Bosch is able to write the model number and serial number of the tool onto the RFID tag. The tags then can be tracked and managed using Intermec RFID scanning equipment, RFID tracking code developed by Blue Dot Solutions, and tool tracking software by ToolWatch.
Safe & Sound began as a direct result of professional-tool customers asking for a better way to keep tabs on Bosch products. “They were saying, `You sell us a valuable asset. We want to make sure we can track and understand who has it,'” said Bosch Digital Power Tools Product Manager John Doherty. “Not only do they worry about the tool disappearing because it costs hundreds of dollars, but they worry about their people being productive.”
Blue Dot developed the RFID software to write and lock the serial and model number to the tags and called in Intermec to provide the mobile computers, RFID tags and readers. Blue Dot, an Intermec-certified RFID partner, is one of the first companies to incorporate RFID technology within a mobility framework. Its mNOW! Mobile Frameworkw's Application Design Toolw provides a GUI component to configure reading and writing to RFID tags, while integrating with mNOW!'s packaged and design-your-own mobile computing applications. Bosch then tapped ToolWatch to provide tracking software that brings information stored on the RFID tags to life.
Fitting – and retrofitting – Intermec Intellitagw RFID tags into Bosch tools was mostly a matter of finding a tag small yet powerful enough to work the way both Bosch and its customers envisioned. Bosch makes several hundred different types of tools, but not all of them would be candidates for Safe & Sound.
“We're talking about tools priced in the $100 to $1,000 range,” Doherty said. “This project is focused on medium-to-large contractors, general contractors, and large trade groups such as electricians, mechanical contractors and more. We're addressing those people who buy tools as an intrinsic part of their operation, and buy hundreds of them, or have hundreds of them currently in place and buy significant numbers on an annual basis.”
Bosch selected 70 tools that represent a cross section of categories. The company also will provide tags for insertion into re-existing tool inventory, whether Bosch or other manufacturers' products. The available space for inserting or attaching an RFID tag varies with each type of tool. A hammer drill made to break concrete, for instance, might have much less tag space than a reciprocating saw. The tag needed to be small enough to fit into the smallest tool handle but large enough to convey essential RFID information.
“That has been one of the fundamental issues throughout the project. Bosch required a very small tag,” said Mick Milnark, President of Blue Dot Solutions. “The tag Bosch is using is not much bigger than a piece of Trident gum. The smaller the tag, the lower the read distance typically is. We're always trying to optimize that.”
An RFID tag is essentially an electronic chip and antenna held in a strip of protective material such as plastic or a label. Bosch's system uses a passive tag, in which encoded information lies dormant until an RFID reader “wakes” it with a reflecting radio signal. Active tags use embedded batteries to boost their reflected signal for greater read distances. However, passive tags, with their fewer components, can be much smaller and fit nicely on power tools.
Intermec's 915MHz tag has several advantages for Bosch. Its size lets it fit into tool handles and housings. Also, 915MHz also is the tag frequency of choice for retailers advocating use of RFID to track cases and pallets of inventory, which promises continued development and expansion of the hardware market surrounding this frequency.
Birth of the smarter tool
Today, at a Bosch facility, workers take ordered tools from inventory and bring them to a tagging workstation. The station's desktop computer runs the Blue Dot tag- writing program. An operator cues the tool's model number and order information from a database and enters the tool's serial number. The program prompts a hardwired Intermec IF4 RFID reader to encode the RFID tag with the tool's unique identity data.
The operator then unscrews the handle or opens the housing on the tool and adheres the RFID tag inside. Another tag goes in as well, this one an electronic article surveillance tag that sounds an alarm if the tool passes through a jobsite security portal. The operator reassembles the tool, places a Safe & Sound label on it and repacks it for shipping.
Unlike standard bar-coded labels used for identifying assets, the RFID tags are impervious to the harsh conditions of a construction site. Safe inside the tool, they cannot be damaged or peeled off, and they remain readable even through a tool's plastic case.
Customers using any of the industry's tool tracking applications with an RFID capability will need a scanner capable of reading the RFID tags, such as an Intermec 700 Color Series mobile computer and an IP3 portable RFID reader.
On a construction jobsite, tools usually are kept in a shelved tool crib or job box. A manager using a tool- tracking application such as ToolWatch will issue equipment to a worker by first capturing tool-identity information from the RFID tag with the IP3 RFID reader. The reader bounces a radio signal off the tool's embedded RFID tag, which reflects back its stored data.
Holstered to the handheld reader is the Intermec 700 Series mobile computer, which has a daylight- readable color display and runs Microsoftw Windowsw for Pocket PC. Using the mobile computer, the manager can send the captured data to the ToolWatch database.
“One of the greatest challenges is that tools are often not returned to the central office,” Doherty said. “They get moved from location to location.” With a tool-tracking application reading the RFID tag, such transfers are easily tracked with a quick read of the tool's RFID tag and an entry to update the system. As construction jobs are completed and tools are turned in, the manager can use the IP3 and mobile computer to take speedy inventory counts.
Central to the program is the software that makes sense of the collected tool data. ToolWatch SE, for example, allows clients to manage and track data over the life of a tool – everything from purchase price to warranty information to which employee last used the item. The system is compatible with both bar code labels and RFID tags.
“In essence, ToolWatch gives intelligence to tools, equipment and supplies,” said Don Kafka, ToolWatch President. “Making our system compatible with RFID technology gives clients more options and allows them to utilize this powerful technology today.”
Bosch's goal is to support an open format that can be used by tool-tracking applications either commercially supplied or developed in house. As RFID technology continues to advance, and particularly as active RFID tags and EPC generation 2 technology make smaller and more powerful tags and hardware available, the Bosch Safe & Sound service will progress to take full advantage of the new capabilities.
“As tags with a power source in them become lower in price and smaller, many options will be open, such as tracking service history, tool activations, or usage profiles for the tool,” Doherty said. “Instead of waiting for a tool to fail, or guessing, we can optimize your repair and maintenance schedules. Then from a security and management standpoint, you can think about GPS.”
To Doherty's knowledge, Bosch is the only power tool company installing RFID tags in tools for customer tracking. “Our primary goal is to address our customers' key needs for succeeding on the job site,” he said. “Safe & Sound addresses a critical success factor, the simple and reliable identification and management of the tools.”
ResourcesBosch: www.BoschTools.comBlue Dot Solutions: www.bluedotsolutions.comIntermec IP3 portable RFID reader; IF4 RFID reader with write capability; 700 Series Color mobile computer; 915MHz RFID tag: www.Intermec.comToolWatch: www.toolwatch.com