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Controlling the flow

A new system for electronically tracking products, from the moment of manufacture to the end of their useful life, is likely to revolutionise manufacturing processes and the supply chains they serve. This system is currently being developed under a joint initiative between MIT and the Institute for Manufacturing [IfM] in Cambridge. Dr Duncan McFarlane of the Institute for Manufacturing explains: "We are looking at the whole of the product life cycle, from the moment a product is made, to when it is retailed, used and finally discarded. What we aim to do is to electronically tag every product that is made and in this way give each individual product the ability to make decisions about its destiny. This may sound rather futuristic, but it is already possible. Silicon chips that are even smaller than a grain of sand can now be manufactured, and their price will soon be down to the level of a few pence each.

We are simply working on providing systems whereby data from electronically tagged products can be read, stored and communicated to other systems in a standardised way. By giving each item that is produced some intelligence, whether it be a crisp packet or a component for a car, then this gives manufacturers and retailers much greater control than they have had before. On a simple level, an item of food will be able to register when its 'sell by' date has been passed, and then make a decision about what to do as a result.

Control over individual products not just assembly lines has huge potential benefits, leading to more choice and cost benefits to consumers. Information about the status of individual components can also be used in a very positive way to make more efficient use of resources and aid re-cycling. For instance, when a product such as a car comes to the end of its useful life, it can be disassembled, and the individually tagged products can identify and assess themselves for re-use or disposal as appropriate."


Researchers at MIT are developing the hardware and software for this process, whilst the team at IfM are concentrating on developing standardised systems such as the language to be used for networking and the decision making programs to control the flow of products.

"It was important for the team at MIT to have a European base for this project as major companies now work for an international market. The Institute for Manufacturing provided an ideal partner for MIT because of its close relationships with European manufacturers and the complementary skills of the research team," comments Duncan McFarlane.

The Cambridge-based team working on the project will comprise between five and ten researchers and three staff members with a five year budget of up to $2 million.

Further information, Auto-ID Centre Europe: Duncan McFarlane/John Lucas, Institute for Manufacturing, Department of Engineering, Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1RX, UK. T: 01223 766141, email: dcm@eng.cam.ac.uk

Duncan McFarlane will talk about this project at the CUEA conference in September.


number 10, June 2001 home | contents | previous | next