ThingMagic and Digi-Key: Helping the IoT Realize Its Full Potential Using RFID

Posted by Shannon Downey on Thu, Aug 28, 2014 @ 02:38 PM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Healthcare, Internet of Things, IT Asset Tracking, Embedded RFID, RFID Data, Inventory Management, Construction, Digi-Key

Conceptually, the Internet of Things (IoT), at its most basic, is composed of billions of items all connected and communicating information through wired and wireless technology.  One of its first and fundamental building blocks is sensing technologies like RFID. To date, however, RFID has been largely relegated to specific enterprise markets and applications. Though RFID-based applications can vary greatly, there is still similar functionality and value to a retailer looking to better track inventory and manage its supply chain; a hospital looking to better organize its equipment, medications and patients; or a construction company looking to better monitor job sites and work assignments to better guarantee the safety of its workers in the event of an emergency.  And this is just a small sampling of the industries and verticals that can benefit from RFID applications.  These applications, across all industries, are capable of delivering tremendous measureable value - but there is so much more that RFID can do within IoT.

Thus, a challenge we face is working to understand the limitations organizations and developers perceive when considering building RFID applications. One of the things that has kept RFID from achieving wider-spread adoption has been the availability of tools that make it easy for engineers and developers to quickly build and integrate RFID-based applications. Nobody understands this issue better than us. But having just signed a global distribution agreement with Digi-Key – one of the world’s largest and fastest growing electronic components distributors – we’re hoping to offer a solution by giving engineers better access to RFID tools and a better foundation for innovating with RFID.

Here at ThingMagic, we are now collaborating with Digi-Key to distribute our Mercury 6e Series and Mercury 5e Series embedded modules, putting us in a position to reach more engineers with the building blocks for tomorrow’s innovations.  Digi-Key’s distribution of ThingMagic development kits along with our modules will enable more companies to develop and produce the connected items that are behind the next wave of IoT solutions. Our award-winning family of modules has the performance capabilities to sustain the speed and connectivity of today’s complex systems, with the compact form factor required for the billions of devices that will one day make up the Internet of Things.

As the proliferation of devices of all types and sizes continues, the development and adoption of the Internet of Things should grow as well.  But we’re still far from that tipping point where we truly connect all devices across the enterprise and consumer worlds seamlessly through the IoT.  In spite of the progress that’s been made, the IoT ecosystem does not yet work together as it should.  For it to reach its potential, we’ll need cooperation from all the participants in the market.  By providing developers and engineers with development tools, platforms and technologies – like RFID – that all support industry standards, then we will have a collaboration that will enable the true vision of IoT.   Our partnering with Digi-Key is another step on the path to achieving that objective.

Adding RFID to Rugged Handhelds and Tablets

Posted by Ken Lynch on Tue, Oct 15, 2013 @ 12:03 PM

Tags: Mobile Computing, Oil and Gas, RFID, Construction, RFID Handhelds

PipelineHow mobile computing devices have changed our personal lives is obvious, but enterprises and business professionals today are being similarly affected by the 24/7/365 nature of being connected. The enterprise presents its own challenges for mobility, one in particular being that there are environments mobile devices are now being used in that come with their own risks.  We’re talking about settings that can be remote, have harsh operating conditions, are security threats to sensitive information or present dangerous weather, among others things. These mobile computers could be with construction workers hanging steel beams, firefighters in remote mountains, miners miles underground or soldiers in a combat theatre. In these situations, the users need to know that these devices are rugged enough to handle extreme heat, cold, moisture and take a heavy pounding. Like the old Timex watch tagline says, these devices need to be able to “take a licking and keep on ticking.”

It should not come as a surprise that RFID is a growing customer requirement for these devices as it is for many other mobile computing solutions.

To support these requiremnts, last year, Trimble's Mobile Computing Solutions and ThingMagic divisions partnered to create an RFID Reader accessory for the Trimble Nomad handheld. The UHF RFID Reader accessory includes a mounting kit which allows users to add UHF RFID capability to their Trimble Nomad handheld computers – devices with the ruggedness and durability that have made it the handheld computer of choice for users with both physically and technically demanding tasks.  Using the Trimble Nomad with an RFID scanner, building contractors for example, can perform a variety of functions such as asset check-in, check-out, transfers and inventory validation much faster than traditional bar code scanning.  When integrated with the Trimble® AllTrak™ Asset and Tool Management System, contractors can more easily track and manage all of their jobsite assets and tools resulting in improved equipment monitoring and asset utilization.

One of our more recent opportunities in this space has been with two leading auto-ID companies, DAP Technologies and Omni-ID.  DAP and Omni-ID partnered to launch a series of mobile tablets for harsh environments that incorporate both active and passive RFID capabilities – an industry first. As a result, a single device can track and manage assets, collect information, synchronize systems, report data and receive and respond to messages. These rugged tablets include ThingMagic’s high-performance UHF RFID reader module, the Micro, for reading tag information on critical assets and equipment and transmitting that information for management and inventory purpose. The size of the Micro makes it unobtrusive for embedding in mobile devices that still require high performance.

Another industry that’s jumped at the opportunity to apply these kinds of solutions is oil and gas production. Oil and gas companies are now investing in tools that enable them to achieve the vision of the “Digital Oilfield revolution.” Simply put, the Digital Oilfield is defined by a focus on how the petroleum business can deploy information technology to support its main business drivers, namely: maximizing and discovering oil reserves, optimizing hydrocarbon production, improving safety and protecting the environment.  And of course much of this work takes place in hard-to-reach, harsh working environments.

Similar to opportunities for productivity enhancement in other industries, the key to almost all the activities associated with the Digital Oilfield is the real-time capture and analysis of data. The auto-ID functionality of today’s mobile computing devices, when coupled with their ruggedized form factor and intuitive interfaces, allows asset tracking and data collection to be a more simple and consistent process, almost becoming an afterthought when in the field. This means fewer manual processes and the opportunity to generate new data for business process improvement.

RFID + Cloud + BIM for Managing Personnel in Vertical Construction

Posted by Bernd Schoner on Wed, Dec 05, 2012 @ 03:54 PM

Tags: RFID, Big Data, Access Control, Asset Management, Construction

ThingMagic has had the opportunity to design, build and run an RFID–based personnel management system on a large construction project in California. Only three months after going-live, the general contractor is blown away by the system benefits and the richness of the collected data.

Construction management and building owners used to have to wait for weeks and months to get data on how their projects have actually been staffed. The new RFID-based system provides this information in real-time during each workday. Construction site management used to deploy several security guards and supervisors for the sole purpose of monitoring the work force in different sections of the building. Using the new system, management can monitor the flow of people in and out of zones from the office trailer: if a person enters an unauthorized zone, an instant email alert is sent to the designated supervisor. Most importantly, should there ever be an emergency evacuation event on site, the system provides real-time updates on who is left in the building and where.

System Overview

We have deployed a three-tier system with a distinct sensor layer, database layer, and application layer.

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Figure 1: RFID-based Personnel Management in Vertical Construction: Major system components and system architecture.

Every worker on the construction site is issued a passive UHF-RFID-enabled ID card, which the individual wears on a lanyard around the neck. The sensor infrastructure consists of RFID-reader-enabled secure turnstiles for access to and egress from the job site; inside the building under construction we have installed Mercury6 RFID readers and antennas to systematically cover the entry areas of the building, staircase landings, man-lift landings, and the entrance areas of elevators banks. As a worker moves from one building section to another, the portal readers pick up the badge ID of the worker and associate the individual with the new space or zone.  

Raw sensor data is sent in real-time to a cloud-based database, where the data is translated into high-level events such as zone entries and exits, and then stored.

A multitude of web-enabled applications have access to the event data through a web API.

BIM Integration

The General Contractor and other stakeholders are given access to the data via a number of interfaces, including a mobile-device friendly web portal and email reports and notifications. However, the core filtering and reporting engine has been implemented as a plug-in to Tekla Structures, the comprehensive Building Information Modeling (BIM) and CAT software developed by our sister division Tekla.

The construction manager can visualize the personnel deployment on site within the 3D model. He or she has the ability to specify the time window of interest, the subcontractor, the zone, and other properties. The selected population of workers or a particular individual is presented along with a work zone selected in the model.


Why would a general contractor or project owner deploy this system? Our RFID-based people management system provides:

  • Real-time visibility into worker location during an evacuation event
  • Instant alerts on security or safety breaches 
  • Instantaneous reports on sub-contractor staffing levels
  • Real-time updates on personnel-related compliance issues or ordinances.

Floor Detail

Figure 2: Full-time equivalent construction personnel over a period of about seven weeks by day, subcontractor, and zone of the building under construction.

Supported by RFID and cloud-computing, emerging life-cycle management solutions are enabling new levels of innovation, productivity, collaboration, and growth in the construction market and others.  Organizations that can best harness this “Big data” opportunity will hold a distinct competitive advantage.

Urban Planning with Building Blocks and RFID Paint Brushes

Posted by Ken Lynch on Thu, Sep 30, 2010 @ 08:21 AM

Tags: RFID, Construction, Urban Planning

Next-Generation Building & Cityscape Modeling

After being commissioned by Alexander the Great to lay out the city of Alexandria, the Greek Hippodamus (c. 407 BC) became known as the "Father of City Planning".  My guess is he didn’t use a CAD system or RFID to help with his design.  How times have changed.

3D ModelingAs mentioned in our post Construction Management with RIFD, RFID and sensors (RFIDS) are being integrated into building materials, enabling new Building Information Modeling (BIM) capabilities and allowing construction firms to use real-time data to enhance construction processes.  And now, new RFID-enabled 3D building design tools are being developed to assist planning professionals even before the construction phase begins. 

According to a recent EE Times Europe story, researchers at the CEA-LETI (Electronics and Information Technology Laboratory of the French Atomic Energy Commission), are developing 3D interactive urban modeling tools using a combination of RFID and Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) based motion capture technologies.

The prototype application includes an interactive table that holds a physical model of an urban area under construction.  13.56MHz HF RFID tags are applied to movable 3D pieces used to represent existing and planned buildings and are read by a total of 960 embedded RFID readers.  The interactive table is coupled with computer assisted design (CAD) software that renders the views of the urban landscape. 

During the planning phase of an urban area, users can reorganize the layout of a city or suburb by manually moving the 3D pieces around the table.  This movement is captured by the CAD software which renders new views in real-time.  Taking the solution even further, the research team has developed a number of modeling functions like applying textures to buildings with and RFID “brush” and an RFID-enabled magnifying glass that can be moved over specific blocks to zoom in on elements displayed in the CAD software.

This is a great example of how RFID can bridge the physical and electronic worlds – turning a physical model into an interactive computer-based platform that can be used easily by experts and non-experts alike.  What do you think about the future of tools like these?  Let us know your thoughts on how RFID and sensors can be used for construction planning.

[Photo credit: Gérard Cottet]

Construction Management with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Aug 11, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

Tags: RFID, Tool Tracking, Construction

Tool Tracking, Heavy Equipment Management and Next-Generation 4-Dimensional Building Information Modeling

Construction companies and maintenance organizations face a unique set of asset management and operational challenges during the best of times.  Given the tight economic and budget conditions we face today, keeping a closer eye on the location of tools and equipment, and ensuring a safe working environment is more important than ever.

Having access to timely and accurate information about the location and status of critical assets such as tools and equipment are directly related to the successful completion of a project and a company’s bottom line.  With the advanced technologies and innovations in the construction industry, it has become both technically and economically viable to integrate the use of automated data collection methods – like RFID - into daily operations. 

Deploying an RFID system involves individually tagging each tool or piece of equipment and then outfitting warehouses, trucks or kiosks with RFID readers.  A comprehensive RFID system can be implemented at a low cost to the customer and provide significant improvements across all areas of the construction process.  Here are a few examples:

Tool Tracking on Vehicles

Normally, trucks leaving work sites have to manually take inventory of all their equipment. More often that not, a piece of this equipment is inadvertently left behind, forcing the company to pay to replace it.  Other times an assignment might call for a specific tool or piece of machinery that has been misplaced.  Looking for the missing item wastes labor hours and wages paid during the time spent searching.

With an RFID-enabled tool tracking solution, employees loading a truck headed to a work site can take inventory in a matter of seconds and retrieve any misplaced or forgotten items.  Upon completion of the job, inventory can be taken again to prevent leaving valuable tools behind.

OK – you didn’t think we could go too long without mentioning Tool Link in our 100 Uses of RFID campaign did you!  Ford Work Solutions™ Tool Link™ uses UHF RFID technology to tell you what's in your truck and what isn't.  This solution is a prime example of the growing number of innovative solutions where users and consumers can naturally interact with RFID and sensors and where the technology is so integrated and transparent that it disappears into its environment. 

Construction Site Tool Tracking

Atlas RFID, a professional service agency dedicated to improving business processes in all fields of RFID, has created a tool tracking solution using ThingMagic USB Readers.

Atlas RFID Atlas RFID Atlas RFID

Atlas’s Asset Management System (AMS) not only tracks tools and equipment, but also the personnel involved.  In addition to the loss prevention and elimination of inefficiencies, Atlas AMS also has the ability to check compliance with safety regulations and inspection.  When tools are passed by the self-service kiosk, this data is displayed up on the user friendly touch screen, allowing a worker to take action if required.

Heavy Equipment Management

Heavy equipment providers that lease cranes, bulldozers and other machinery are testing or deploying RFID to keep track of assets and monitor their use in order to maximize lease revenues. In addition, these companies are testing RFID to keep tabs on workers to ensure both safety and productivity.

RFID and Sensors for Maintenance and Building Information Modeling

The integration of RFID and sensors into building material is finding its way into Building Information Modeling (BIM), allowing construction firms to generate and manage real-time building data during its life cycle to increase productivity in building design and construction.

For example, tagging of building components allows one to perform authentication and lifetime maintenance of construction materials such as concrete blocks, steel beams and piping.  RFIDS in environmentally stressed materials can be monitored for the lifetime of a building, measuring strain, temperature and moisture to deliver a profile of building with very high resolution in real-time for real-time control.

Let us know your thoughts on how RFID and sensors can be used in the construction industry.  Please share your success stories with us.

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