Sun, IBM, HP move ahead with RFID

A trio of major IT vendors all announced Monday plans to focus on and market radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies to their customers.

As part of an EPCglobal Inc. RFID standards conference in Baltimore, Maryland, this week, Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp, and Hewlett-Packard Co. all announced new RFID initiatives.

HP announced two RFID partnerships and plans to invest US$150 million over the next five years on RFID projects, the company said. HP has its own RFID products deployed at 28 of its manufacturing plants, and it is also supplying RFID technology to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., a leading adopter of RFID technology, said Dayna Fried, a spokeswoman for HP. "We've gone to a lot of our customers, and we're found they're looking for an RFID partner or someone to implement RFID for them," Fried said.

RFID uses small computer chips and antennas that are integrated into a paper or plastic label. Those chips can then be read by an electronic scanner, and unlike barcodes, RFID chips withstand dirt and scratches and can be scanned from distances upward of 25 feet (762 centimeters).

HP announced an expansion of an agreement with BearingPoint Inc., in which the two companies will work together on RFID products designed to lower inventory costs and improve management for customers in the retail industry. HP will provide the infrastructure technology, including HP ProLiant servers, Unix HP Superdome servers and HP StorageWorks technology, while BearingPoint will provide assessment, consulting and systems integration support, business process and change management services, and other retail knowledge.

HP also announced a partnership with OATSystems Inc., an RFID software vendor, to launch the RFID/IS (Industrial Strength) platform, designed to capture RFID data and track the movement of goods across an extended supply chain while providing centralized control of an RFID network. The product is targeted toward automotive, consumer packaged goods, pharmaceutical, consumer electronics, retail and high-tech customers.

Also on Monday, IBM announced it would invest US$250 million over the next five years on sensor and actuator products, often used in RFID products. Part of the IBM investment will also focus on industrial automation technologies, in addition to RFID, said Rainer Kerth, RFID architect in the IBM Sensor and Actuator Solutions division.

IBM also announced that it will offer a new WebSphere-based RFID product in the fourth quarter of 2004. This middleware is designed to allow customers to collect, integrate and manage data obtained from RFID tags and readers from customers' distribution centers and stores.

Interest in RFID from companies like Wal-Mart and organizations like the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is driving interest in RFID, Kerth said. Wal-Mart plans to phase in use of RFID, with major suppliers of its north Texas stores required to use RFID chips on pallets and cases by January 2005. The DOD plans to require suppliers to use RFID tags by early 2005.

"We see (RFID) as a significant software and services opportunity," Kerth said.

Also on Monday, Sun Microsystems announced more RFID products, including the Sun RFID offering for iForce Partners, the Sun RFID retail compliance program, and an RFID warehouse management solution that combines products and services from Sun, SIS Technologies Ltd. and SSA Global Technologies Inc.

Through the Sun RFID offering for iForce Partners, Sun is providing the industry's first program created specifically to foster the development of networked RFID solutions, according to the company.

A key part of the Sun RFID offering is the Sun Java System RFID Software Toolkit, designed to simplify the creation of RFID device adapters, which enable RFID readers to communicate with the Sun Java System RFID Software. Customers can use the Sun RFID Toolkit to integrate their RFID readers and other devices with the Sun Java System RFID Software or to build custom device adapters for RFID deployments, according to a Sun press release.

The Sun RFID offering for iForce partners will provide participants with access to the latest news, documents, software downloads and toolkits to assist in their development and marketing needs around the Java System RFID Software. In addition to providing technical resources and marketing information, the Sun RFID offering will enable companies to work with Sun on customer pilot programs and deployments using the Sun RFID Test Centers.

Sun has worked with SIS Technologies, a provider of infrastructure, technical support, services, and technology solutions, and SSA Global, a provider of extended enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, to deliver an RFID warehouse management solution. The product is designed to help manufacturers and distributors reduce costs and improve efficiency by using RFID technology to automate expensive manual processes such as inventory tracking and management.

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