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Pushing the Frontiers of Mobile BI with RFID

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Monday, May 16, 2011

Many of us have gotten used to running analytical business intelligence applications in the palm of our hands. However, mobile BI reaches far beyond the capability to perform analytics on the go: it is also about collecting important data from diverse remote locations so that enterprise analytics can be further actualized and broadened in scope and integrity. This is especially true when it comes to tracking and capturing the behavior of assets that are isolated, such as those outside of the domain or purview of enterprise IT systems. RFID technologies now offer elegant solutions for capturing and distributing data about these isolated assets.

RFID is an acronym for Radio Frequency Identification. RFID systems exchange data wirelessly between a RFID reader and a RFID readable electronic tag that gets embedded or attached to a physical object (such as a  piece of inventory, a transportation vehicle, or the body of an animal) in order to uniquely identify and track the geographic location of that object. Because it uses electrostatic/electromagnetic radio waves (the RF portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) as its basis and backbone of communication, RFID technology is exceedingly easy and inexpensive to implement.

What makes RFID such a useful and innovative technology is that it is able to effectively function on a proximity basis. RFID tags can be read and processed as long as they pass within a given radius of a RFID reader. Unlike barcode technologies, where each barcode tag must pass directly in front of a reader, hundreds of RFID tags can be read all at once since there is no requirement for line-of-sight scanning of each tag. Scanning and tracking can be done at a palette level, with tagged items remaining snuggly packaged in a box or shipping crate because there is no need to worry about scanning each tag on a one-by-one basis.

Inventory Management

For quite some time now, RFID-enabled mobile BI has been instrumental in improving the productivity of many large farms in North America by remote animal tracking and inventory management. Farmhands now have the ability to know where any and all of their animals are at any given point in time, thus maximizing the value of their livestock and the natural resources required to sustain each herd. Cattle can be automatically identified and tracked (on a large group basis if needed) as they pass through a predetermined RFID gateway. They no longer have to be manually scanned individually, which was the required practice using barcode technology.

RFID does much more for famers and ranchers than help them track their cattle across the range; it also assists them in catering to their livestock’s dynamic sustenance needs via intelligent feed stations which dispense food and water and remotely send consumption data back to a main base of operations. Even in their death, some animals continue their journey through the value chain, thanks to a RFID-tagged carcass which ensures that the animal can be fully tracked as it makes its trip from the slaughter house to the leather factory.

Market Intelligence

Recently, consumers at select fast food restaurants in the United States have been serviced by a new kind of electronic beverage machine. These highly intelligent contraptions are capable of dispensing over 100 different kinds of soft drinks, teas, and fruit juices. After a restaurant customer selects a drink from the machine’s extensive beverage menu, the machine will dynamically mix and pour their concoction, drawing upon one or more of 30 embedded flavor cartridges to assemble the finished product. Interesting, now let’s consider the BI angle.

Each cartridge in the machine is tagged with a RFID chip, with each dispenser sporting a RFID reader. Customer drinking and purchasing habits can then be transmitted in real time (via VPN) to analytic BI applications. This is remote BI at its most innovative and effective. Every day the beverage maker will have marketplace intelligence that lets them determine how each one of their drinks are selling in various geographical and demographic markets and in different restaurant chains. Furthermore, inventory and supply chains can be better managed, resulting in just-in-time replenishment of drink cartridges and soda syrup, on a machine by machine basis. By building RFID capability into soda machines, beverage makers have brought to life a new kind of BI appliance.

Environmental Benefits of RFID Technology

An added benefit of RFID technology is its positive implications for the earth’s environment. RFID-enabled geo tracking devices, meters, and dispensers can remotely capture, persist, and distribute data without daily, on-site human intervention. This means less carbon emissions are created, because there is a lessened need to transport someone to a physical site in order to manually harvest data. The environmentally friendly leanings of RFID technologies are especially relevant for wildlife conservation, where animals may travel and migrate unpredictably across vast geographical spaces in a short period of time. Previously, conservation agencies would have had to dispatch a multitude of field agents in order to track and map animal movements and physically account for each specimen. But with RFID, they are able to track migration, breeding, and population patterns remotely, with the added benefit of receiving data that is as accurate as it is timely.

Conclusion

RFID devices will continue to proliferate at a fast pace as the limitations of legacy barcode technology become fully realized by all. RFID will increasingly be used to facilitate remote data collection and reliable “geo awareness”, thereby bringing real-time customer service and instantaneous analytics to areas of business that have traditionally been vacuums of knowledge and transparency. Keeping tabs on animals and soft drinks is interesting for sure, but I have concerns about the Big Brother implications of RFID, namely its use in tracking the physical movements and financial transactions of individual citizens. We must take great care to ensure that future RFID technologies do not infringe on our collective and individual civil liberties. I have yet to be convinced that possessing a credit card with a built-in RFID chip will enhance or enrich my life in any way.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices—across all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide.. As a Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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