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.

RFID Keeping Tabs on the Largest Supply Chain in the World

Posted by Ken Lynch on Thu, May 24, 2012 @ 11:10 AM

Tags: RFID, Supply Chain, DoD, IT Asset Tracking

DoDThe United States Department of Defense (DoD) has used RFID in its supply chain for almost 30 years. Long before that, during World War II, the US Army kept track of equipment using IBM punch cards and electric accounting machines. After the benefits of RFID were quickly discovered and used for other types of applications, in 2005 the DoD mandated that its suppliers had to mark each item sold to the department with a passive RFID tag.

Lack of item-level visibility in the supply chain posed problems for the DoD, leading the department to develop a Radio Frequency In-Transit Visibility (RF-ITV) network to track container shipments. Because of the success and return on investment with that deployment, the DoD looked at other ways it could leverage RFID in its supply chain.

The DoD’s latest project is to use both active and passive RFID to track equipment that comes out of Iraq, sent to certain locations to be rebuilt, and then shipped to Afghanistan where it will be put to use once more. Much like the Commander in Chief has advance men, DoD personnel have advance information on equipment. According to an RFID Journal story, the visibility helps streamline the process for receiving the supplies and equipment and planning for the rebuilding work.

The advance information – or visibility into the supply chain – helps government employees know what supplies are needed so they can place the right orders at the right time. Equipment coming out of Iraq destined for Afghanistan can be scheduled for necessary repairs with far more efficiency. That could mean soldiers getting bullet proof vests faster, or driving armored vehicles in better condition.

RFID could have potentially helped account for the equipment and supplies that were purchased with the hundreds of billions of dollars approved by Congress to support the war in Iraq in 2007. I understand that it is a huge sum of money to trace compounded by the fact that it’s the world’s largest supply chain. However, we should try to learn from that experience and look for other ways that RFID can help with accountability in government. One idea comes to mind.  

It was recently reported that Teri Takai, the DoD Chief Information Officer, talked about an active effort to assess risk in the government’s supply chain in the midst of Cyber attacks that have plagued the nation. The effort would entail having better security for computer hardware and software, and having visibility into everyone who has access to the network, and knowing what information they access. I think we’ve identified RFID’s next government job.

Raising the Bar for RFID Readers

Posted by Ken Lynch on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 @ 01:30 PM

Tags: Business Intelligence, RFID, Healthcare, IT Asset Tracking, USB RFID reader, Telematics, RFID + GPS

Helping Enterprises Realize the Value of RFID

Economies such as the one we are living and working in now, are forcing enterprises to trim costs while maintaining, and even increasing output. This approach requires skill and creativity to avoid misguided cost-cutting initiatives.  One could argue it also requires making intelligent technology investments that can pay for themselves quickly while establishing a foundation for smart growth.  That’s where RFID comes into the picture. RFID isn’t unattainable.  It isn’t a pie in the sky solution that requires a team of engineers and it isn’t cost-prohibitive.  It’s right here in front of us waiting to help.

Taking Flexibility and Integration to a New Level

Those of you who are familiar with ThingMagic most likely saw the product announcement we made last week. Enhancements to our Mercury6 (M6) UHF RFID Reader raise the bar for flexibility and integration.  For reasons, in part brought about by current market conditions, high-quality reader capabilities are much needed by enterprises today.  The firmware upgrade to our M6 reader includes several enhancements to address these needs, most notably support for Low-Level Reader Protocol (LLRP) and Reader-Hosted Applications.

What is LLRP and Why Now?

Let’s first start with EPCglobal - the organization that supports the adoption and implementation of standards-based Electronic Product Code™/Radio Frequency Identification (EPC/RFID) technology.  EPCGlobal was responsible for standardizing the tag and reader radio frequency interface protocol with the UHF Gen 2 standard.  As a next step in facilitating the adoption of EPC and RFID technology, EPCglobal ratified the LLRP standard, a specification for the network interface between the reader and its controlling software or hardware.  In creating LLRP, EPCglobal included air-protocol configurations and a robust set of vendor extension points that support the flexibility and integration required to innovate. The FAQ can be found here.

We’ve chosen to implement LLRP now for two primary reasons.  First, a growing number of enterprise organizations are deploying RFID technology.  In doing so, they need to integrate data generated from RFID reads with existing standards-based enterprise systems to support critical aspects of their business.  Secondly, as the distribution channels for RFID products continue to evolve, supporting standards is crucial.  Supporting LLRP and other standards makes it easier for our channel partners to sell and support ThingMagic products.  The bottom line is that all of this makes it easier for customers to deploy and manage their RFID systems, allowing them to recognize the business benefits of RFID faster.

Reader-Hosted Applications

Also included in the upgrade is a Linux-based operating system capable of hosting on-reader applications. This feature allows the M6 reader to perform application-specific actions independently, providing solution developers the opportunity to differentiate their offerings to the enterprise market.

An example of this is a solution developed by ThingMagic partner XECAN, a leading provider of RFID patient safety solutions for the healthcare market.  XECAN developed a RFID plug-in application designed to eliminate patient identification and potential treatment errors by interfacing directly with Electronic Medical Record (EMR) software.  This application is hosted directly on the ThingMagic reader (in this case and Astra reader, but could just as easily have been an M6).  According to Bin Yang, Ph.D., CEO of XECAN, “By embedding our agent software directly onto the Astra reader, we’ve made our RFID Oncology Solution truly plug-and-play…This breakthrough advantage sets us apart while enabling us to provide an affordable, yet highly reliable RFID system.”

Multiple Choice

It’s important to note that, with this upgrade, ThingMagic customers now have the option of operating M6 readers with the ThingMagic MercuryAPI or LLRP depending on their project requirements.  Existing M6 customers can take advantage of LLRP by upgrading to the new interface without changing how their current host programs interact with the API – making the transition seamless and transparent.  If desired, customers can continue to use the ThingMagic MercuryAPI - a common application programming interface implemented across all of ThingMagic's readers.

To help you visualize the value of the MercuryAPI and how you can develop an application that takes advantage of the breadth of ThingMagic’s product line, including the USB desktop reader, Astra integrated reader, Vega in-vehicle reader and the Mercury6, watch the following video: ThingMagic Mercury6 (M6) RFID Reader Makes Integration Easy

ThingMagic M6 RFID Reader

As illustrated below, with one application, enterprises can gain access to location, employee identification and time stamp information that allows them to track asset throughout the entire chain of custody, including plotting the location of the assets in-transit using integrated GPS.

RFID Application

RFID Tag Selection & Automated Placement Testing

Another important aspect of creating any successful RFID application is knowing where to place the RFID tag for maximum performance. But don’t worry, it’ll be easy.  We’ve done the work for you in our lab, and it can be seen in the video, “RFID Tag Placement: Where do you stick it?

RFID Tag Placement

It’s Time to Reshape the Way We Think About RFID

There is no doubt that over the next decade, RFID systems will become an integral part of the consumer and business experience. The convergence of wireless technologies will be augmented by RFID systems. The development of passive RFID as part of this platform will be driven by the potential to measure, report and monetize a growing number of transactions in the physical world.

Similar to the mobile phone, the widespread integration of GPS into today’s commercial and consumer positioning solutions, and the adoption of this thing called the Internet, RFID is ready to transform markets.

Only time will tell the scale and impact RFID will have, but I for one, bet it will be a big one.

IT Asset Tracking with RFID is not Rocket Science

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 @ 12:19 PM

Tags: RFID, IT Asset Tracking, NASA

NASA Ditches Paper & Pen in Favor of RFID to Locate Valuable Equipment

Data CenterThe accurate and timely tracking of assets like laptops, mobile devices and desktop PC equipment is a vital component of any profitable IT strategy.  For many large global companies, tracking servers and server rack components distributed throughout data centers and across the world is equally important.  Counting and tracking IT equipment has historically been done manually - which can be labor intensive, time consuming and prone to human error.  These manual processes also provide a single snapshot in time and often need to be repeated frequently in order to provide a useful picture of inventory and its operating status.

RFID is quickly becoming the answer for many companies looking to automate IT asset tracking in data centers and enterprise office locations – delivering a new level of efficiency and addressing many of the challenges found with the manual processes mentioned above.  And, though the thought of tracking hundreds of pieces of mobile equipment or thousands of server components might be too daunting of a task, deploying an RFID IT asset tracking system is not rocket science.

NASA Takes One Giant Leap Forward

Famous for leading the United States’ space exploration efforts, NASA recently announced its installation of an RFID system to track thousands of pieces of equipment at its Langley Research Center.  Covering a combined 30,000 square feet of data center, office and lab space, the RFID system deployed by NASA is used to track 1,500 servers and other computing devices, along with another 1,500 pieces equipment used by scientists both inside and outside of NASA labs.

To inventory its lab and data center equipment, NASA uses a handheld RFID reader and a combination of room-level tags, to provide information about what should be in the room, and item-level tags to identify specific devices.  Discrepancy alerts are reported to the handheld user and are presumably addressed in real time.  According to NASA, RFID has replaced both their use of paper and pen to track equipment serial numbers and the manual process used to check-out and return lab equipment.  The result?  How about reducing the time required for their inventory counts from three weeks to a single day.

Shoot for the Moon

While significant time savings have been realized by NASA related to their datacenter inventory processes, can RFID be deployed in such a way to deliver a true real-time inventory view and further reduce the need for personnel to access each server rack to read tags attached to individual component?

For these installations, integrating a fixed RFID reader directly into the rack may provide a significant advantage.  Tags designed for on-metal reading have come a long way, as have antenna configurations and the performance of UHF RFID readers in this challenging environment.  While NASA may not have requirements for this type of solution, I expect those who operate large server farms do.  With more high-bandwidth applications, like video, being used by consumers, datacenter growth is predicted to expand.  With this expansion, comes the need for innovative solutions – like in-rack RFID - to continue to advance operational efficiency.

Let us know what your drivers are for automating your IT asset tracking and management processes.  Does better managing a 24x7 datacenter operation lead the way?  How about the need to address loss or theft, reducing over purchases, product cannibalization (resulting in warranty issues), or government or legal compliance? 

[Photo credit 1&1]

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