What’s the radio frequency, Canada?

TORONTO — IBM Wednesday opened a Canadian RFID Centre to educate industry here about the benefits of the technology and the potential impact it could have on tracking products from poultry to pharmaceuticals.

The 8,000 sq.-ft. centre is located in one of Big Blue’s development facilities in Markham, Ont., but also includes the participation of more than half a dozen partners including the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, Symbol Technologies and GS1 Canada, part of an international body dedicated to advancing standards in radio frequency identification and product code technology.

“This is not an IBM RFID centre, this is a Canadian RFID centre,” said IBM Canada president Dan Fortin.

The centre will initially focus on RFID’s role in the grocery business and is equipped with large cold storage facilities to determine how well RFID tags will function in extreme temperatures.

It is also the first North American centre to showcase second generation RFID technology.

The advantages of RFID are: creating a more efficient supply chain; generating granular data that can be read in real time; and the ability to track boxes, pallets and eventually individual products with non-line-of-sight scanning technology.

The second generation of RFID (G2), will feature that basic functionality but include enhancements like a “kill” feature which would allow tags to be switched off once they have outlived their usefulness. The ability to turn a tag off would also be a benefit to consumers who prefer that products not be tracked after they are purchased.

The potential of RFID has been recognized by organizations from the U.S. Department of Defense for tracking military equipment to retail chain Wal-Mart, which already has a comprehensive RFID project underway.

But this is still early days, said Art Smith, CEO of GS1/EPCglobal Canada, hence the need for an educational facility in Canada.

“We just started building the baseball diamond. We haven’t started the first inning yet,” he said, adding that the majority of retail-based transactions are still conducted via bar code technology – an estimated five billion a day.

“This is not a slam dunk,” he said. “We’ve got technology issues to lever . . . we’ve got to start with basic training.”

The day when RFID will be used to track individual products is still far off, said David Wilkes, vice-president of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors: consumers won’t have direct contact with the technology for some time. This is still a “case and pallet issue,” he said.

IBM is using food and groceries as the starting point because the implications are so broad, said Shai Verma, RFID practice leader for IBM’s business consulting services. The technology can be used to help reduce spoilage of food and to track livestock to ensure the safety and viability of meat.

The federal government has mandated an Agricultural Policy Framework that 80 per cent of food products be fully traceable by 2008. RFID is necessary to accomplish this goal, said Wilkes, since existing bar code technology is not sufficient to meet the new traceability criteria.

After about three to six months of conducting demonstrations with grocery products, the RFID centre will expand its reach to include other types of products and equipment, said Verma. The nature of those products will depend on the individual clients that wish to take advantage of the centre, he added, but pharmaceuticals are a natural follow-up to food testing since they also have expiry dates and temperature requirements.

The third phase of the centre will be actual production examples of RFID-based supply chains and IBM is working on providing the infrastructure (based on DB2 database architecture with WebSphere middleware) to make them possible. “What we’re trying to do is put RFID as an overlay onto an existing framework,” said Verma, adding that IBM’s development efforts with the technology will be able to integrate with supply chain solutions that are already available in the market.

IBM also has RFID facilities in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Canadian clients will be able to take advantage of research that those facilities have already produced, said Verma.

IBM already uses some RFID capabilities in its own production efforts, such as tracking the 300-mm wafers it uses to make chips and chemicals that are used as part of the production process.

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