August 29, 2005
 

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Posted: 07.04

Rise of the Machines

Machine-2-machine, embedded sensing systems deliver increased productivity, better security and improved quality control with less human intervention.
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By Tim Scannell




Las Vegas is a city with multiple personalities, ranging from its most obvious face as the adult gaming capital of the world to its refreshed image as a diversified entertainment hot spot that appeals to families and those interested in more than just a spinning roulette wheel.

Look a little closer beneath the brightly lit, gaudy skin of the city, however, and you will see still another side to Las Vegas, one that involves such evolving technologies as radio frequency ID (RFID) tagging, embedded wireless systems and machine-to-machine (M2M) interaction. At least one or more major casinos in this city are investigating the use of wireless sensing technology to manage building environmental controls, provide real-time security and even keep track of high rollers and VIPS who frequent the gambling tables and high-stakes diversions and may lose a considerable amount of cash in the process.

“In a casino, there is an enormous number of people walking in and out of a massive building, so (M2M technology) adds a security element,” says Venkat Bahl, VP of marketing at Ember, a company based in Boston that specializes in embedded wireless solutions for the building automation, asset management, industrial automation, utility and defense industries. “Casinos are usually visited by VIPs and a ‘Who’s Who’ list of people, so they are also a high-level target for attacks,” he adds.

While security is certainly one of the higher-profile applications of M2M technology, and an area that is currently driving a significant portion of the market, it is not your typical bread-and-butter application for embedded wireless systems. Rather, the bulk of development and implementations today focuses on industrial automation, involving such things as process temperature control; utilities and applications such as automated meter reading and billing and real-time monitoring; and building automation, involving deployments that relate to energy control systems.

To the uninitiated, all of this can be deadly dull. But to the companies involved in M2M and embedded wireless deployments, these applications translate into some real cost savings and a higher degree of real-time control over what is happening throughout a supply chain.

These systems have the potential to “minimize human interaction and increase accuracy and security,” says Vinay Gokhale, VP of RFID products for Impinj, a maker of RFID tags and technologies. They can also improve the quality and consistency of products, while at the same time minimizing costs since RFID tags can automatically communicate with other systems to identify and isolate products that are not up to par.

Food for Thought
In the food industry, for example, says Gokhale, “we know that food products are perishable and involve a very complicated supply chain—meaning there can be 5 to 10 different intermediaries between the farmer and the consumer. One of the things that is key is to maintain the integrity of these products as they make their way through these intermediaries.”

One major utility company in California is also using M2M techniques to not only monitor the use of individual appliances within homes and businesses—such as air conditioners—but is also automatically controlling the use of specially equipped cooling systems and appliances during peak power demands. When power requirements increase, consumers who have opted into this program in exchange for a discount can have their unit shut down for a period of time and then restarted when the power levels are balanced.

Broadly defined, M2M is a technology that is designed to support wired or wireless communication between machines with little or no human interaction. In fact, many people believe M2M is synonymous with wireless mesh networking and applications. For example, M2M systems are used by most major cities to independently monitor traffic flows and constantly feed that information back to a system that operates the thousands of traffic signals located throughout an urban setting.

M2M sensors and transmitters are also used by utility companies to transmit the information collected by in-home meters back to a central processor—eliminating the need for a human meter reader—and can be integrated with cellular wireless to transmit utility data back from remote locations, as is the case in deployments involving Qualcomm and Verizon in the state of Texas.

“There is enough ROI in M2M today to drive OEMs to put it into their products,” says Ember’s Bahl. “There is the cost savings, the value addition and the fact that now you can put in the communications for very low cost and at very low power, and develop a very scalable network. Basically, “you are able to develop applications that customers wanted to do before, but couldn’t.”

M2M in the Real World
Some of the more interesting applications—and the ones that present the most potential in terms of enhancing productivity and kicking quality up a few notches—involve real-time monitoring of very specific, and at times critical, operations. For example, semiconductor manufacturers are using M2M systems to check the quality of manufactured products as they make their way through the fabrication process and to automatically pinpoint and eliminate faulty or defective products. Likewise, a leading automobile manufacturer has installed an M2M system to monitor one segment of its assembly line, involving the manufacture of car doors. The system can look at the individual parts that make up the door as it comes together, and isolate those pieces that are defective – all without human intervention.

M2M technology is also being used in industrial automation applications to monitor such things as the temperatures and pressures affecting chemical storage tanks, or to watch the flow rates and power levels in boles and cooling towers. These systems can not only react to changes to avoid dangerous situations, but companies can use the collected intelligence from these embedded systems to reduce downtime, lower operating costs and prevent equipment failures.

The marriage of RFID, M2M and automated systems integration really comes together, however, when the products that are under each system’s protective watch are perishable or time-sensitive. This is why the food and transportation industries are looking hard at M2M and remote sensing alternatives to monitor shipments as they snake through an ever-challenging jungle of port checks and distribution channels. “One of the things that is key is to maintain the integrity of the product through each check point and intermediary,” says Ember’s Bahl. With RFID and other technologies, as the product makes its way through the supply chain, each transaction “can serve as an opportunity to report something about the integrity of that product and if it was handled.”

One company keenly aware of the importance of real-time tracking and the increasing difficulties of global shipments is Stavis Seafood, a 75-year-old seafood product distributor located in Boston’s historic waterfront district that currently ships more than 150 varieties of fresh fish and 700 varieties of frozen fish worldwide.Up until a few years ago, Stavis dealt primarily in the fresh fish business, working with local providers as well as fish farmers as far away as South America and Africa. The company would broker fish from its Boston headquarters, directing tens of thousands of pounds of shipments from the point of origin through several ports and to a final destination.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, however, it is been a daily challenge to shuttle sealed containers through ports without undue delays—primarily because there are just too many containers that enter the U.S. each day (up to 16,000 or more) and not enough inspectors to examine each and every one of them. As a result, some of Stavis’ fresh seafood shipments have been held up for days and ultimately spoiled. As a result, the company has had to shift more of its business over to frozen products, which is an entirely different business model.

Inspection delays “could add almost a week more to the transport time, which is critical when dealing with perishable products, even when they’re properly refrigerated,” explains Stavis Seafood’s CEO, Richard Stavis. “And then you have the vendor on the other line asking what the problem is with their fish and why they haven’t been paid yet, since they are the ones that have to extend their credit.”

Good Vibrations
M2M sensing systems can also be used to monitor and keep a detailed audit of the temperature, pressure and vibration changes on a product so that system can automatically tweak a refrigeration system to adapt to changes and provide a history to the target client in that supply chain. “All of that information can be stored in the machine, or on the RFID object by the machine, so that you can ensure the integrity of the product,” says Vinay Gokhale.

Last December, Ember and RAE Systems, one of the company’s technology partners, demonstrated a prototype wireless cargo monitoring system, consisting of a variety of environmental sensors, embedded radio frequency chips and mesh networking software that is designed to sniff out catastrophic weapons and other materials that may be smuggled within sealed containers. The system can not only detect weapons materials, but can provide a detailed audit of when containers have been opened and sealed, and when the contents have been removed or added.

While just barely out of the prototype stage, systems like this may soon be the norm as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security pushes for companies that ship to American ports to equip their containers with wireless sensors to guard against terrorist threats. As an added incentive, this agency has offered to give preference to containers that are equipped with smart sensors, while putting ”dumb” containers through long and slow manual checks.

While embedded wireless sensors and M2M technology is not yet a mandate in the eyes of the government, many experts believe that it is only a matter of time before these systems become the official rule instead of the exception.

“Our challenge is to get the products out today, and to conform to where Homeland Security is heading, so when the actual specifications get passed we are already compliant,” says Ember’s Bahl.

Tim Scannell is president of Shoreline Research (www.shorelineresearch.com), a consultancy based in Quincy, Mass.














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