A convention has built around the Internet of Things which measures IoT market potential in terms of the number of devices that will be connected by a certain date. While this guestimation may offer some rough parameters for overall market size – give or take a billion or two devices – a more interesting view considers new business models, new products and new partnerships that will emerge from IoT opportunity. Another convention has been to vision IoT as an IT solutions play, where networking, cloud and data analytics optimize systems to introduce new efficiencies in industry, government, transport, energy and other sectors. But the “things” in IoT generally hail from the physical world, and when software enabled operate with different technologies according to different protocols. This requires the merging of IT and OT (operational technologies), and introduces a host of different market players into the IoT marketscape.
In the research report below, 451 Research associate analyst Ryan Martin examines one of these, a new joint venture between Stanley Black & Decker and RF Controls called View Technologies which is banking on a niche opportunity – the identification and itemization of ‘things’ via a location-based RFID technology. View Technologies describes its offering as a wide-area, UHF passive RFID service ‘platform’ that provides real time, location-based intelligence for monitoring sensor assets. As a platform, the service can integrate with existing infrastructure and services to enable the merging of systems noted above, and as Martin points out, to allow View Technologies “skim the market,” positioning as a key cog in an IoT solution wheel.
For an informative primer on RFID, View Technologies’ own version of it, and the likelihood of its success in displacing traditional tagging technologies or commanding precedence in an evolving IoT ecosystem, read on. Martin’s “SWOT” analysis offers a quick summary. (ed.)
View Technologies, a joint venture between Stanley Black & Decker and RF Controls, has just launched inView, its real-time, location-based RFID platform for logistics, manufacturing and retail, building on the idea that the Internet of Things (IoT) is nothing without item-level information about the 'things' being connected. The extent to which items are able to be identified, located and tracked both concurrently and in real time depends just as much on the efficacy of RFID readers as the tags they read. While this makes a lot of sense from a 'systems' perspective, the reality is that RFID reader R&D has been largely ignored until recently. This is the space that View Technologies is after – wide-area, UHF passive RFID with real-time location services.
The 451 Take
Positioning inView as a value-added platform that companies can integrate with their existing infrastructure or services is a sure-fire way to skim the market when paired with compelling ROI scenarios that provide intelligence at the item level, in the place(s) and time of operations. Partnering with systems integrators and application platforms designed for retail and industrial settings is just part of the process (albeit an important one); leveraging Stanley Black & Decker's capital and operational excellence, and RF Controls' intellectual property portfolio, both of which are integral to executing its go-to-market agenda, is another. While the likelihood of cannibalizing legacy passive and active tag market share means prospective customers will be forced to evaluate not only View Technologies' offerings, but also those of competing – and substitutable – technologies that abandon RFID altogether, it has enough of a jump on the game to adjust (rather than simply react) as needed.
View Technologies is a joint venture between Stanley Black & Decker and RF Controls, established in July 2014 and based in Marietta, Georgia. Stanley provides manufacturing, sales, marketing, installation, software and administrative services to the joint venture through its Industrial division (Engineered Fastening), while RF Controls provides an exclusive global license to its RFID antenna systems, which are protected by the following patents:
- US 8,344,858 – Steerable Phased Array Antenna RFID Tag Locator, Tracking System and Method
- US 8,421,631 – Radio Frequency Signal Acquisition and Source Location System
- US 8,159,367 – Noise Validated Phase Ranging RFID Location System
- US 8,344,823 – Antenna Switching Arrangement
- US 8,451,121 – Calibration and Operation Assurance Method and Apparatus for RFID Object Monitoring System
- US 8,120,488 – Radio Frequency Environment Object Monitoring System
The first three patents listed (858, 631 and 367) cover the methods and apparatus required to locate and track RFID tags using steerable phase array antenna systems. The following two patents (823 and 121) improve the accuracy and performance of RFID reading systems. The remaining patent (488) draws from RF Controls' previously protected intellectual property to enable object tracking without the need for RFID tags – although, in practice, few companies have ventured down this path due to cost (to meet digital signal processing/computing power requirements).
View Technologies currently employs a team of 15 people, half of whom are in engineering and software development. It also has access to a team of about 20 at RF Controls and the resources of Stanley Black & Decker's $1.6bn Engineered Fastening group (FY2014). Moving forward, RF Controls will continue to be the research and development owners of the RFID technology, while View Technologies acts as the commercial arm responsible for developing its rules-based processing software.
RFID systems have been around for more than 60 years, but it was only in the 1980s that they started to be used for item identification and supply-chain-related applications. The challenge was that early RFID technologies – which include both RFID tags and the antennas that read them – operated at either low and medium frequencies (125kHz and 1.6MHz) or in the shortwave, HF region (6MHz and 13.56MHz) where system's operating range was limited to several meters. A number of improvements to RFID component technologies (e.g., silicon) and the use of the UHF band (860-960MHz) have since increased range considerably.
Today, there are three main types of RFID systems:
- Active – Tags have their own transmitter and power source (e.g., beacons). They are generally used to track larger objects over a longer distance (100 meters or more).
- Passive – The reader and reader antenna send a radio signal to the tag; the RFID tag reflects the signal back to the reader. They are generally used to track smaller items over shorter distances (~10 meters).
- Battery-Assisted Passive – Tags have an internal power source to actively scan for incoming transmissions; the RFID tag reflection process is the same as in passive RFID, but with a slightly longer range (up to 100 meters).
Because passive RFID systems don't require tags to have their own power source or transmitter, they're typically cheaper (less than $0.15 per tag), smaller and easier to manufacture than active tags. View Technologies' system has a max read range of up to 150 feet (~45 meters), within six inches of accuracy.
View Technologies provides wide-area RFID smart antennas and the associated software needed to identify, locate and track items in real time. It also offers a rules engine and 3D-capable RFID readers so customers can customize the system – holistically referred to as the inView platform – and see a stream of highly accurate, item-level position data; for hardware, it uses Echo RFID readers developed by RF Controls (the system is tag-agnostic).
There are three tiers of service for inView customers:
- Locate – provides a real-time stream of 3D position data for passive UHF RFID tags; typically selected as stand-alone when a customer already has real-time location services middleware systems but wants location data for analytics.
- Track – provides a stream of zone movement data for when tags move from one software-defined area to another, as well as historical location data for those movements; typically selected for applications that benefit from item movement notifications and alerts.
- Act – provides attribute enrichment and rules-based events that can be triggered based on zone movement to better inform business processes; allows a customer to group tags based on certain attributes (e.g., time, location and state change), with the option to tie event information into third-party systems as needed.
The pricing structure is based on the level of tier service. Customers can choose between locate, track and act based on their needs and the overall goals for a given project. Generally, the level of service is determined by how and what a customer wants to do. It generally take about nine months from the time an engagement starts to the time it's fully rolled out, depending on the size, scope and complexity of the deployment.
View Technologies expects to sign on new customers by positioning its RFID systems as a lever for growth (e.g., customer engagement, analytics and promotion compliance), efficiency (e.g., inventory management, staging/shipping and process optimization) and loss prevention. While the potential use cases for wide-area RFID are similarly broad, the company's industry purview is less so – manufacturing, logistics and retail. Target segments are as follows:
- Manufacturing – Job shop-type manufacturing facilities and maintenance and repair operations: to locate and track warehouse items, manage inventory, validate safety procedures and maximize throughput (and therefore minimize delays).
- Logistics – Air cargo and freight, distribution centers and third-party logistics organizations: to streamline inventory management operations, ensure item/asset chain of custody, automate the picking/packing process, and increase shipping and receiving velocity.
- Retail – Big box retailers, department stores and specialty apparel companies: to improve customer engagement, optimize inventory management workflows, prevent theft and augment existing electronic article surveillance systems.
Initial installations are being piloted within Stanley Black & Decker businesses as View Technologies sets its sights on the wider market. Nine customer pilot projects are under way.
Large companies such as Honeywell (Intermec Technologies) and Zebra Technologies (via Psion, which came with its acquisition of Motorola Solutions' Enterprise business in 2014) represent the incumbent RFID reader players. But the company-centric purview doesn't tell the whole story; customers and prospects must also be convinced that RFID as a technology is better than the available substitutes. For things such as barcodes, which provide static, two-dimensional point-in-time information and are prone to error (since barcodes can't be read if they're smudged or positioned outside scanners' line of sight), View Technologies can safely check off the boxes on its list of competitive considerations. Its outlook becomes murkier, however, when looked at in the context of the broader IoT ecosystem – particularly given that Bluetooth (beacons included), Wi-Fi and other connectivity options are likely to exhibit mesh networking-type qualities in future releases. The major difference – and advantage for View Technologies – is that the company's offerings are built on tried-and-trusted, commercially available core technologies (RFID). Although operating environments where tags are prone to liquid or metal exposure can compromise RFID functionality, View's wide-area, directional antenna systems can be configured to accommodate those challenges.
|Stanley Black & Decker's customer credibility, market access and commercial excellence, coupled with RF Controls' intellectual property portfolio, are big advantages for View Technologies and its go-to-market efforts.||Automating the 'who, what, where and why' part of the tracking process can help minimize human error and, in turn, alleviate unnecessary overhead. The challenge is that people tagging items still need to ensure tags are put in the right place, and that the right tags are put on the right objects.|
|Real-time, item-level visibility – knowing what you have and where it is when it's needed – drives better business decisions, and View Technologies has chosen its go-to-market dance partners wisely. But expanding to regions (beyond North America) that maintain substantial operations in the customer segments targeted by View could really move the needle.||The likelihood of cannibalizing legacy passive and active tag market share means prospective customers will be forced to evaluate not only View's offerings, but also those of competing – and substitutable – technologies that abandon RFID altogether.|