Close Encounters of the Smart Kind

Intelligent material flow and the Internet of Things may be closer than you think.

By now, most of us probably agree the economy is recovering. Does this mean we'll see a return to business as usual?

Probably not, according to a new report from IDC Manufacturing Insights. In preparing its “Worldwide Supply Chain 2010 Top 10 Predictions” report, IDC compiled insights from technology vendors, consultants, academics and manufacturing end users and concluded that the global financial crisis has changed business operations forever. The glue holding IDC's predictions together is the idea that we're moving toward an “intelligent economy” — a world in which information is captured at the point of activity, communicated to business partners and analyzed to make decisions. IDC points to successful implementations of RFID, sensors and machine-to-machine (M2M) technology and predicts further adoption in 2010. ABI Research has similar projections for high-tech data collection, forecasting a 14% compound annual growth rate for RFID through 2014.

Applications for RFID are growing as fast as the technology itself, according to research consultancy IDTechEx. Over the years, RFID has evolved from tag communication to readers (first generation) to real-time locating systems (second generation), and then to third-generation, active RFID — tags that double as readers and interact with sensors in wireless (or “ubiquitous”) sensor networks.

Take it a step further, and you have the “Internet of Things” — a concept in which physical materials literally become information systems. Each “thing” has an identity, history and mission and can “think” using built-in logic.

A report released this month by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. outlines current applications for wireless networking, high-tech sensors and RFID. One is sensors that track RFID tags on products moving through supply chains. Another example is airplane manufacturers building airframes containing networked sensors that continuously send wear data to technicians' desktops, allowing for proactive maintenance and less unplanned downtime.

If you think this is too far out to impact material handling, think again. The concept was explored at the most recent International Material Handling Research Colloquium at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) in Germany. The Material Handling Industry of America's College Industry Council on Material Handling Education sponsors the colloquium every two years to encourage new ideas in material handling and logistics.

Dr. Michael ten Hompel, director of IML, explains that the Internet of Things allows for automated, flexible, decentralized control using RFID technology. Materials become intelligent and capable of communication.

“Parts, pallets and bins, as well as sets of data, will in the future find their way on their own, from production, to the customer and back again for recycling,” he says. “Things will talk to each other, coordinate themselves and independently ask for necessary resources. Things have an electronic identity and will be wirelessly connected with their environment on the basis of RFID technology.”

IML even created a “real-time logistics project” that supposedly proves all this is possible.

Still not convinced? Back in 2001, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley invented “smart dust” — wireless networks of devices (some measuring only a fifth of the length of a grain of rice) that can detect and communicate data about light, temperature, vibration and more. Last month, Hewlett-Packard announced a partnership with Shell Oil to develop smart dust. Tiny sensors will detect and transmit seismic data, allowing Shell to pinpoint pockets of oil over hundreds of miles of earth.

So, it took less than 10 years — less than a blink of an eye in historical terms — for a fanciful vision to become a real-world business application. If futurists are correct in saying technology progresses exponentially, you just might see an intelligent economy after your next blink.

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