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RFID successes highlighted at Mobile & Wireless World

Some IT managers note problems but say the technology offers benefits

May 25, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - ORLANDO -- Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has had an important impact on safety and security, as well as product sales and inventory management, at BP PLC, Ford Motor Co. 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 at 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) here 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 $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% 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."

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