RFID successes highlighted at Mobile & Wireless World

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has had an important impact on safety and security, as well as product sales and inventory management, at BP, Ford Motor and other businesses, officials at the companies said this week -- although IT managers said the technology still has obstacles to overcome.

Curt Smith, director of application technologies for BP, formerly British Petroleum, listed several new RFID applications at the London-based company, including a rollout in its early stages that will eventually track the location of 3,000 workers at BP's Cherry Point oil refinery in Washington. Active RFID tags at the refinery will be especially useful in an emergency to discover who is missing and has not reported to a safety zone, he said.

Smith described the Location Aware Safety System (LASS) in Orlando at Mobile & Wireless World (MWW), which is sponsored by Computerworld.

About 50 workers are being tracked in the early stages of the project, which has been under development for two years and is expected to cost less than US$1 million, Smith said in an interview. Workers initially had privacy concerns about the technology but were relieved to learn their whereabouts after work would be protected. "They all see the value of the RFID for their safety. It's amazing how strong they are taking to it," said Smith.

The timing of the Cherry Point project is ideal, since BP had a refinery disaster about a year ago in Texas City, Texas, in which 15 people died and dozens were injured, Smith said. Tracking technology would be helpful in saving lives in such cases, he said.

BP is also seeing a 15 percent increase in retail sales of five-quart motor oil containers shipping with passive RFID tags. The containers are sold exclusively at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. retail outlets in Texas and several nearby states, Smith said. The improved sales come from BP's ability to accurately track that shipments actually arrive at a store, as well as its ability to ensure that the products are in stock on the sales floor during promotions instead of on a loading dock or in transit, Smith said.

"The Wal-Mart and BP sales example demonstrates the value of RFID as a tool for effective management and auditing performance," said Dan Taylor, an analyst at Mobile Enterprise Alliance in Wakefield, Mass. "RFID helps close the feedback loop" that business supply chains need.

Taylor pointed to a range of RFID examples that indicate that the technology is taking off, with implementations moving into the area of safety in addition to inventory-tracking. "RFID is coming along," he said. "Some of the examples are pretty amazing."

BP has several other uses for RFID, including a plan to put the tags on equipment inside its data centers, Smith said. BP is working with IBM on software to help track routers, servers and switches equipped with the tags.

The use of RFID technology to track parts inventory and vehicles is in place or in the planning stages at four U.S. manufacturing plants at Ford Motor. Research started on the technology as far back as 2000, Ted Thuis, business process specialist for the automaker, told MWW attendees.

One RFID application, called Fast Gate, is used at Ford's Chicago assembly plant and will be implemented at the company's assembly plant in Oakville, Ontario, to track incoming supply trucks using an active RFID tag attached to the delivery vehicles, Thuis said. At Ford's Valencia assembly plant in Venezuela, vehicle parts inventory is tracked with passive RFID tags temporarily attached to the parts and reused. And at Ford's truck plant, RFID tags are hung from the rearview mirrors of new vehicles to track their movement through portions of the supply chain.

Although he declined to discuss costs, Thuis said his team faces management pressure to show return on investment from the RFID deployments. The technology helps "to increase velocity in our supply chain, increase visibility, improve quality, create lean manufacturing, improve flexibility and ultimately lower costs," he told attendees. "Certainly these [applications] do pay off."

Another IT manager, Schon Crouse, mobility integration analyst at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said in an interview that laptops with embedded passive RFID chips are being purchased from Dell and slowly deployed to more than 1,000 hospital workers. One of the first applications, for tracking and preventing theft of the laptops using the tags, involves exterior doorways in the hospital complex that lock when a laptop is brought nearby. The concept is under development and has not yet been proven, he said.

"It promises to be an important benefit from a relatively cheap technology," Crouse said in an interview. "The cost of the RFID chips in the laptops was so incrementally small that we just had to take advantage of it."

John Wade, CIO at St. Luke's Health System, said RFID is being evaluated for patient tracking, partly to help doctors quickly find patients when they make rounds. St Luke's has 10 facilities throughout the Kansas City region and more than 1,300 hospital beds. However, Wade said, the reusable active RFID bracelets need to be lighter so they can be used on newborns, and they need to be sealed so they can be sterilized for reuse because they are too expensive to throw away.

"The technology is not there yet," Wade said in a presentation.