Keeping Tabs on Tools
It’ll be harder to lose things once containers learn to keep track of their contents. That’s the idea behind Tool Link, a product created by Cambridge-based company ThingMagic, working with Ford and toolmaker DeWalt. Tool Link, which will be installed in 2009 Ford Work Solutions E-series and F-series vehicles, can take inventory of the tools packed in a truck using radio-frequency identification (RFID) and alert the user if any are missing.
ThingMagic cofounders Yael Maguire and Ravi Pappu say that they created the product in response to demand from the construction industry, where lost or forgotten tools cost companies time and money. Using RFID to solve the problem stemmed naturally from the company’s larger philosophy of connecting the physical objects in the world to Internet technologies. “RFID is suited to enable search in the reality around us,” says Pappu. He and Maguire say they’re working to build the infrastructure that can enable their vision of pervasive RFID.
Tool Link’s core technology is an RFID reader built into the truck bed that reads microchips on the tools to sense which ones the bed contains. Each microchip, or RFID tag, is fitted with an antenna so that data can be sent between the reader and the tag. In this case, the reader might request the number of the tool from each tag contained in the truck bed. The RFID reader provides all the power in the transaction, meaning that the tags on the tools don’t need any sort of battery supply. Similar RFID systems are used by many large companies for inventory purposes. What makes Tool Link unique is the application and ThingMagic’s focus on embedding RFID into the object. The antennas, for example, are manufactured to look like the rest of the truck bed so that they can blend in seamlessly. In the future, Maguire says, the truck bed itself might be the antenna.
The system includes a small computer built into the dashboard, where the user accesses the data that the reader collects. Tool Link can gather information about what’s in the truck in the morning, and then compare that to what’s in the truck in the evening, making sure that no tools that were brought to the job have been left behind. The user can also create lists of tools for specific jobs, detailing what needs to be put into the truck before heading to the job site. When the user turns on the truck, Tool Link reports which tools, if any, aren’t in the truck bed.
Michael Liard, a research director at ABI Research, who focuses on RFID and contactless technologies, says that the technology is an innovative solution to a common problem. He says that he expects other industries to become interested in Tool Link. (ThingMagic is already working on a similar system for emergency-response vehicles.) He also expects to see the company integrate its technology into other types of physical objects. While many companies, including ThingMagic, offer RFID readers, Liard notes, “ThingMagic made a conscious decision some time ago to really focus on embedded RFID readers and applications. They’re looking at putting readers into different types of form factors and vehicles. I think there’s real-world promise behind that.”
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