Be on the wave or under it
The News – 02/14/03
Razor King Cuts RFID Tag Deal
Although Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has
been around for about 40 years, the technology recently got
a big boost when Gillette committed
to buy up to a half a billion RFID tags.
RFID is a technology that allows manufacturers, warehousers,
and retailers to wirelessly track inventory without physically
scanning a bar code. A passive radio circuit is embedded in
a cheap (from under 40 cents to about $1 each) adhesive tag.
Special radio scanners activate the tags and read data from
them. Applications in inventory management are fairly obvious
– doing inventory is a snap, you can know immediately what has
shipped and what has not, and you can locate a particular pallet
among the thousands in the warehouse.
It’s not surprising, then that thus far, RFID applications
have been concentrated in the supply chain automation industry,
boosting RFID industry sales to $951 million in 2001, according
to research firm Venture Development Corp.
But retailers and manufacturers are also using RFID tags for
other applications, such as theft (shrinkage) control and to
help trace the lifecycle of a product, such as a component in
an auto. For example, Bloomington-Normal Seating Co., a manufacturer
of seats for automakers such as Mitsubishi, began putting RFID
tags on seat components earlier this year. The tags allow the
company to know exactly where each component for a single vehicle
is at any time. British retailer Marks & Spencer is using
more than 1.2 million RFID-tags on plastic totes used for picking
and sorting food, reducing the time it takes to identify items
in a container—a process that used to be completed by bar code
scanning—by 84 percent.
Most industry observers felt that by 2006 tags should sell
in volume for about a nickel apiece and readers will drop to
$100 and once the price drops other applications become practical.
Well the future is now. Gillette’s half a billion tags is probably
more than the total number of RFID tags in use today. Plus their
chosen vendor, startup Alien Technology, said
in July that it can assemble the tags for less than ten cents
Gillette said it
would tag pallets and cases, equipping its two major packaging
and distribution centers with RFID technology to internally
track Venus women’s razor blades as they move from packing to
inventory, are assembled on pallets and verified, and then are
put on trucks.
The company, a founding sponsor of the Auto-ID Center at MIT
(see the TrendSpot
and this FAQ for
more info), has other applications in mind as well. Gillette
plans to use the tags with smart shelf technology developed
for them by the Auto-ID Center. The smart shelves have built-in
RFID readers and they are being tested in stores in the US and
UK. A Gillette spokesperson said
the company will attach the labels to grooming products such
as razors and razor blades that ship to Wal-Mart stores. When
supplies on store shelves run low, they alert stock clerks to
refill them, and when stockroom shelves run low, the system
orders more. The trial will run throughout the year. “We want
to make sure the shelf is always full,” says Dick Cantwell,
Gillette's VP of worldwide beauty care products.
“They're going to drag RFID to the mainstream,” said
Deepak Shetty, a Frost and Sullivan analyst. “Many businesses
have been waiting for innovators like Gillette and Wal-Mart
to prove that the technology works before adopting it themselves.”
Gillette’s purchase is also the first commercial order for products
that incorporate the Electronic Product Code (EPC) developed
by the MIT Auto-ID Center, of which Gillette’s Cantwell is chairman.
that by 2006, if the tests go well, Gillette will have installed
RFID systems in most of its warehouses and more of its products
and will be sharing data with suppliers. “In 10 years, RFID
will be as ubiquitous as the bar code,” he says.
Not only are there obvious benefits in tracking individually
tagged cans of shaving cream and deodorant at retail, but some
predict an automated home of the future that can read information
from the tags (or look up information from identifiers embedded
in the tags) and act upon it. For example, your pantry could
tell you when you’ve used the last can of tomato sauce, or your
microwave could find out how to cook your frozen dinner by reading
the RFID tag.
All this progress certainly won’t come with a cost. For example,
manufacturer, distributor, and retailer databases will have
to be renovated to make room for more data. Peter Abell of AMR
“Now, for every place a company has a Universal Product Code
in its database, it will need a location, a time and a block
of serial numbers.” The effort to do this will be huge. “This
is bigger than Y2K,” Abell says.
Nonetheless, many industry observers feel that Gillette’s move
has really started the ball rolling. And there have been rumors
that another large manufacturer is about to buy upwards of 2
- Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: I’ve
reworked the Opinion section,
adding a Prediction
Tracking page to track the various predictions I’ve made,
and also added a Stuff
I Said page with some quotes of things I said a decade
ago on the Net.
I repurposed and adapted an article about the wireless service
known as Short Messaging Service (SMS) for the Reside newsletter.
It’s entitled, Wherever
they go, there you are and it points out how marketers
can use – carefully – this new way to contact their customers.
I’m featured in Manyworlds’ Thought
Leader Showcase, which lists a few of the white papers
I’ve done. I’ve also added their fancy icon to the StratVantage
Finally, the CTOMentor wireless white paper, You Can Take
It with You: Business Applications of Personal Wireless Devices,
is available at ITPapers.
- Smart Dust:
Self-organizing wireless-sensor networks a now being prototyped
worldwide. The pilots are built on the "smart-dust"concept
originated by Kris Pister, associate professor of electrical
engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. The
smart sensors, called Motes, were created by the Berkeley
and Intel, and consist of a sensor array board mated with
a generic wireless controller board, both in a hermetically
sealed enclosure. They are still larger than dust, but once
single-chip realizations are available, researcher figure
they can downsize the wireless sensors to a volume less than
a cubic millimeter. The researchers created TinyOS and TinyDB
as well as a many Tiny applications to facilitate the self-organizing
of Motes into a sensor network.
They forsee several interesting applications, besides spying
on law-abiding folks (sorry, news of Ashcroft saying he needs
even more power to detain citizens for no particular reason
has got me spooked):
Engineers also envision other uses for the Smart Dust project,
- Monitoring humidity and temperature to assess the freshness
Monitoring quadriplegics' eye movements
and facial gestures and to assist them in communicating
A new user interface for games -- a user
could attach sensors to his or her fingers to manipulate
Detecting the onset of diseases, such
I Used to Want This Car
As a BMW owner (despite the fact that my 1994 740iL is up
on blocks in my garage for over a year now with a blown engine
caused by a manufacturing defect
the company refuses to fix – but I’m not bitter), I was wowed
by the debut in late 2001 of the 745Li, the upscale automaker’s
top of the line luxury sedan. The vehicle has a mindbending
Active Roll Stabilization (ARS) ride stabilizing system that
practically glues the car to the road in turns. Even though
the car’s list price is stratospheric (starting at $72,500),
I still thought, well, in a few years, getting one on the
used market might be possible. A guy can dream.
Well, it turns out that the 745Li has a few problems and the
culprit, you may not be surprised to learn, is computers.
Not only computers, but an operating system made by our favorite
software monopoly, Microsoft. The car contains roughly 70
microprocessors and features iDrive, a “miracle knob” single
joystick that replaces more than 200 buttons that control
everything from the position of seats to navigation to climate,
communications and entertainment systems.
The iDrive is powered in part by the stripped down version
of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. And like many
Microsoft OSes, this one has its problems. Despite two major
recalls, 745Li owners still experience problems
like automatic braking while creeping, stalling if the fuel
tank gets below 1/3, trunks that don’t close, slipping in
and out of gear, and an ignition that spits out the electronic
Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group
Inc., says the problem industry carelessness. Pressured to
add amenities like navigation, Virag says, auto manufacturers
are outsourcing software development and going to market with
immature and faulty software. “The auto industry is highly
regulated, and these [software-controlled systems] are not
mission-critical systems,” he says. “But companies like Microsoft
can't do to the auto industry what they did to the PC industry.
You can't play Russian Roulette every time you stick the key
into the ignition.”
So I guess the good news is I don’t need to save my pennies
to buy a 2002 745Li in a few years. I think I’ll do what I
do with all Microsoft software: wait until at least Service
Pack 2 is released.
- The Bleeding Wi-Fi Edge: Last issue I
related how I uncharacteristically jumped onto leading edge
technology by buying Linksys’ 54G wireless LAN and PC card.
Well, I’ve been cut by the bleeding edge already: My laptop
card has just ceased to work. There’s no discernable reason
for this. The card shows up as installed and working in every
way I can tell. It just is “not active.” This means it won’t
talk to my wireless access point, or any other access point
I’ve tried. I emailed Linksys tech support, and asked them nicely
not to send me the typical reply email that details frequently
asked questions and assumes the customer is a dolt who, for
example, plugged the card in upside down. Jennifer replied very
Dear Valued Linksys Customer,
Thank you for contacting Linksys Customer
Thank you for purchasing Linksys product!
Please let me know if you have a router
and what is the model of your wireless devices to better isolate
the situation. Do you have other wireless computers in the network?
Hope that this helps.
Thank you and have a nice day!
While this was very pleasant, and not at all
condescending like certain other unnamed companies’ (Pinnacle
Systems, you know who you are) replies, it really didn’t help
too much, since I told her I had the Linksys 54G router in my
original email. Since each round of tech support email usually
takes at least 24 hours, I don’t appreciate getting at least
some information in each round. We’ll see how this develops.
Return to Mike’s
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About The Author
a New Service from StratVantage
Can’t Get Enough of ME?
In the unlikely event
that you want more of my opinions, I’ve started a Weblog. It’s the fashionable
thing for pundits to do, and I’m doing it too. A Weblog is a datestamped
collection of somewhat random thoughts and ideas assembled on a Web
page. If you’d like to subject the world to your thoughts, as I do,
you can create your own Weblog. You need to have a Web site that allows
you FTP access, and the free software from www.blogger.com.
This allows you to right click on a Web page and append your pithy thoughts
to your Weblog.
I’ve dubbed my Weblog
entries “Stratlets”, and they are available at www.stratvantage.com/stratlets/.
Let me know what you think.
Also check out the TrendSpot for ranking of
the latest emerging trends.
14, 1928 - July 5, 2003
Jane C. Ellsworth
20, 1928 - July 20, 2003