An EU-funded project is going a step beyond existing radio frequency identification (RFID) systems by developing a sensor network that will allow items to communicate more information about their surroundings.
The Collaborative Business Items (CoBIs) project aims to shift a substantial part of business processes from resource-intensive back-end systems to systems embedded in the products themselves.
The technology can be used with goods or equipment to make them " smart". Items such as cartons of foods will be able to warn operators when the storage limit in a warehouse is reached, if a leak occurs or if one is placed in the wrong location.
Researchers believe the technology could help increase the efficiency of business processes by preventing mistakes that cost time and money. It would also add a new level of automation by reducing the need for manual data collection.
Sensors, wireless communication and computing components attached to items will give businesses more "eyes" on the ground, according to a description of the project at Information Society Technologies, an EU-funded information site on research in the bloc.
RFID has long been touted as the future of logistics for all companies by allowing retailers and suppliers to track goods throughout the supply chain. However high prices for tags and systems has held enthusiasm at bay. Privacy concerns have also limited its use at the consumer level.
RFID systems are made up of hardware, such as tags that can be read electronically, and the software required to track products throughout the supply chain.
Unlike most RFID systems that mainly work passively to distinguish between tagged objects with their own unique identifier, CoBIs-enabled objects work actively by incorporating embedded sensing, computing and wireless short-range communication.
They can monitor the state and environmental conditions of the goods they are attached to, communicate with other items and collaborate to collect data on conditions that no single sensor would be able to detect. The technology can then feed the information into back-end systems automatically using the project's network software.
"What we are doing is making sensor network technology useful to businesses by creating a system that responds to the need for real-time information," stated CoBIs coordinator Stephan Haller at SAP Research in Germany. "It allows goods to act and react automatically to changes at the local level, and warn operators of the change."
The system will be tested at a BP petrochemical plant in Hull in the UK later this year. Sensor nodes will be attached to barrels of chemicals and used to monitor compliance with safety regulations on the storage of hazardous materials.
Haller estimates that the full system - including middleware components and an application development environment - could be adopted commercially in the oil industry within three to five years.
Haller believes the technology could be used in many other sectors of industry, including food, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, where monitoring the condition of a product is crucial.
In the test for BP, the technology will provide automatic inventory tracking of chemical drums. It will also set off visual and audio alarms embedded in the sensors and in the storage facility if too many drums are stored together or incorrectly.
The sensors could also be used to monitor the environmental conditions chemicals are subjected to during transportation or storage, allowing companies to detect a shipment that may have lost its properties and discard it rather than inadvertently - and potentially dangerously - using it in a later production process.
In retail, RFID is already being used to track inventory and prevent theft. Haller believes CoBIs could help solve the RFID "reader collision problem". This occurs when the coverage area of one RFID reader overlaps with that of another reader. This causes signal interference and can lead to multiple reads of the same tag.
RFID readers equipped with CoBIs nodes will be able to coordinate duty cycles and power levels autonomously with each other, Haller stated.
This allows for a physical reorganisation of the shelves without the need for reconfiguring the RF parameters manually. The 'adaptive smart shelves' concept is due to be tested by the project partner Infineon in Austria later this year.
CoBIs could also be used to create smart clothing that could be used to protect workers in hazardous environments, Haller stated.
"One idea is that sensors embedded in a suit could be used to check whether a person meets certain conditions to access an area of a factory where a gas leak has occurred, for example," he stated. "The sensors nodes would communicate with other nodes in the building and in other people's clothing and equipment to determine access rights to ensure safety regulations are complied with. Only if all required workers with the correct training certificates, and all necessary safety and maintenance equipment are present, would the door open for them."
The CoBIs sensor network is designed to be easy to deploy and scalable to meet the needs of different companies and industries. The developers have created a spin-off company set up by the University of Karlsruhe and SAP to commercialise the project's results.
The company, Particle Computer, is currently selling the sensor nodes at prices between €20 and €200 euros each depending on the capabilities. The battery life of the reusable device is estimated at several months if employed to carry out communications every few seconds.
The project partners are studying ways to provide alternative power sources.
So far it has gained around 25 clients for its technology. In recognition of its innovation, Particle Computer was awarded the CyberChampion Prize by the Research Center for Information Technologies (FZI) in Karlsruhe.