Making noise with silent commerce

20 May 2004

Nestled in the hills surrounding the southern French city of Nice is an area known as Sophia Antipolis, otherwise known as France’s Silicon Valley, where some 20,000 people in some of the world’s largest technology organisations are engaged in researching and developing the technologies of tomorrow. Among these is Big Five IT consultant Accenture’s technology lab, which has had some success in defining business models around technology for use by organisations ranging from Halifax and the Bank of Scotland to Dell Computer and the US Department of Defence.

Researchers from around the world are beavering away on the creation of future ways of doing business. Termed ‘silent commerce’, researchers are endeavouring to create a business environment where a multitude of semi-invisible devices – such as radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, sensors and smart dust – will play an integral part in reporting mission critical business information across a range of applications, ranging from retail to manufacturing to agriculture.

Researchers at the Sophia Antipolis lab are working on a premise whereby almost any physical item can be embedded with electronic tags and sensors to establish a unique identity, store a wealth of information and sense changes in the environment. Potential applications include factories, high street shops and warehouses whereby every item, case or pallet can be tracked and their status monitored. RFID readers could track inventory flow into and out of a building, as well as update inventory counts accordingly. The current, labour-intensive check-in process could be virtually eliminated as will many of the clerical functions that are now required to support the inventory receiving process.

One of the UK’s largest retailers, Marks & Spencer, has been putting RFID tags on around four million reusable trays used by more than 200 of its suppliers to improve supply speed and reduce errors. The RFID tags replace a card file system whereby suppliers used to write information about a shipment (such as contents and how long produce should be displayed in a store) onto a card and placed the card on the tray along with the goods being shipped to Marks & Spencer. The cards often got lost or damaged in transit. Using RFID, the data will now be written on tags on the tray. By installing readers at its loading docks, Marks & Spencer can automatically record having received the trays and simultaneously read all the data from tags on trays stacked in a warehouse.

Among the examples demonstrated at Sophia Antipolis last week was the use of RFID-enabled end-to-end supply chain management for a CD manufacturer and high street music store. All product components, discs and inserts could be tagged with RFID tags bearing electronic product codes (EPCs) with a unique serial number that can distinguish two otherwise identical CDs.

To read the EPCs, antennas are placed in point-of-use storage zones to detect the tags, enabling items to be tracked throughout the entire manufacturing process in real-time. Software vendors like Oracle in recent weeks admitted to plans to create SCM databases for the storage of vast quantities of data that RFID-based application will create.

Another potential application for government and business demonstrated last week included RFID-enabled smart license plates, with RFID tags placed within license plates to enable police, parking firms, car dealers, insurance firms, petrol stations and car rental firms offer services in real time. For example, police forces using RFID readers attached to lampposts at present can detect vehicles at speeds of around 31mph for information like insurance, tax and NCT certificates. However, newer RFID technologies will soon be capable of reading vehicle information at 130mph.

The Irish Revenue Commissioners has in the past year worked with Accenture’s Sophia Antipolis lab to deploy a technology that would give Revenue workers greater intelligence when performing tax audits. According to Mark Illsley, European labs director at Sophia Antipolis, Accenture and the Revenue Commissioners have developed a proof of concept based on Accenture’s Knowedge Discovery Tool. The technology, known in Revenue circles as “Profiler”, is a knowledge integration application that probes multiple data repositories and displays knowledge as a single, holistic web. It goes beyond basic web search engines by enabling Revenue executives to see relationships between pieces of information that they never knew existed.

Another potentially fruitful ‘silent commerce’ application to come out of the lab was a technology born of the merger between Halifax and Bank of Scotland (HBOS). The Sophia Antipolis lab worked with HBOS to develop digital pen and paper technology that combines HP’s Forms Automation System with Visual Objects’ MyScript handwriting recognition software. Using a special HP-manufactured pen that records handwriting data on specific application forms, sales executives can have the data sent back to the bank’s systems via Bluetooth or infra red, reducing costs through quicker processing and reducing input errors associated with transcribing information to computers by 15pc.

However, according to Accenture researcher Stefan Therond, while silent commerce technologies like RFID and digital pen and paper might seem like instant solutions to age-old problems, the implementation of these solutions are entire IT projects away when you consider the need to install the necessary middleware; install the various ‘read points’; implement the software infrastructure and embark on change management projects. “There is a lot of hype and misconception surrounding RFID and although it is not a new technology, the implementation is in its infancy. You could say we are only at the Commodore 64 stage of silent commerce.”

By John Kennedy