When Stanley Black and Decker, the tools and hardware giant, last year formed a joint venture with RF Controls, a software startup focused on using RFID tags to track things, it was a bet on the future growth of big data and the Internet of Things. But in the near-term, the collaboration was focused on a very concrete business proposition: helping manufacturers, retailers and logistics firms automatically count and monitor items that pass through their facilities, something that today consumes a vast amount of worker time and energy.
Most RFID (radio-frequency identification) systems today use handheld devices or door-affixed portals to capture “snapshots in time,” says Steve Hudson, CEO of the joint venture company, View Technologies, based in Marietta, Georgia. View’s overhead-mounted antenna – strategically placed in manufacturing plants, distribution centers or big-box retail stores – continuously identifies tagged items within a 150-foot range. That’s 10 times as far as any other RFID tracker, Hudson says. Combined with the company’s software, called the inView Platform, the system captures and stores real-time data, creating a more effective way for companies to follow the items being stored as well as movable assets in the facility.
“It provides a 3-D location of the tagged item using the same tags used with other RFID technology, so we can leverage what’s already in the supply chain,” Hudson explains. “It really is disruptive. There’s just nothing like it out there.”
The technology has been tested or deployed in all three of View’s target markets – manufacturing, logistics and retail, Hudson says. One example customer cited in RFID Journal is a company involved in aircraft maintenance and repair. There, the system reads tags attached to an aircraft or the tools being used on that aircraft. The data stream that it produces enables the company to better manage the locations of parts and tools, as well as determine the stage of an item’s maintenance or repair based on its location.
Why Form a Joint Venture
Hudson and Stanley’s Ted Bostic, the Chief Technology Officer for the $11 billion company’s engineered fasteners business, say the joint venture strategy that combines the resources of a large corporation with the speed and agility of a startup is the best way to advance the technology.
“I like to think of it in terms of the industrial revolution,” says Bostic, right, who reports to JoAnna Sohovich, global president, Stanley Engineered Fastening and Digital Excellence Leader. “Stanley has gone through the first machine age, and we’re going through the second machine age now, and then a constant state of adaptation. … The reach that Stanley has, the brand strength, the fact that Stanley is comprised of many businesses and divisions … allow for opportunities like this to extend across every type of industry.”
Hudson, who also reports to Sohovich, says it was basically a strategic approach for two companies looking to bring to market breakthroughs in RFID.
“Stanley brings commercial scale and excellence; they have the resources to think big and get it right,” Hudson says. “This is a new innovation, so their keeping us as a separate joint venture allows us to be agile and grow to scale as these markets develop. We’ve leveraged the channels within Stanley and the resources so that it gives us proving grounds and marketability.”
Applications and Scale
The inView Platform, launched in September, has three different tiers. The first tier, called Locate, delivers raw location data based on the 3-D position identified by the scanner. That raw data can then be managed by an end user’s existing software or a solution provider’s middleware. The next tier, called Track, creates virtual zones through which the item moves, and the software presents data that indicates where that item is traveling. The final tier, called Act, consists of rules-based events, such as sending alerts for an item’s unauthorized movement or updating the status of goods based on their movement through specific areas such as a shipping dock.
While its reach could one day go beyond the three target markets (manufacturing, logistics and retail), Hudson says View’s focus in its first year has remained on developing and growing the technology for those areas.
“We’ve identified a landscape, and we measure success by: Is the market integrating with us, and are customers coming to us?” he says. “And we’re making it easier by working with those partners to deliver a complete end-to-end solution, so the end customer doesn’t need to go figure it out and invest to get it done themselves. Stanley is a big part of that.”
A good part of the first year, Hudson says, was taking what RF Controls had done for 10 years and figuring out how to scale it. For instance, using Stanley’s supply chain organization, the View team was able to go to suppliers and get components at the right price points.
Building Up Big Data Capabilities
For Stanley’s part, Bostic says the big picture is always in play. “This is a system that at its core has the ability to create a whole bunch of valuable data,” he says. As it stands now, the new RFID system is being applied within Stanley’s industrial division. But Bostic and his colleagues certainly have already been exploring how it could be applied in the company’s other two divisions – tools/storage and security – and eventually outside Stanley’s doors.
And Hudson sees the potential to plug in and connect with other systems generation data. “Most systems we’ll interface with will consume not just our RFID data, but they may also have other technologies that bring it in to provide something bigger, whether it’s video or other location technologies that are wide-area, versus inside like us,” Hudson explains. “We want to be the place [other businesses] go to first when it comes to location and identification inside spaces where we operate.”
Constant tracking, monitoring, and data streams being generated by all kinds of items represent the future, Bostic says — a blending of physical items and the “bits and bytes” of information about them. Adapting to that new reality is crucial for Stanley Black and Decker — whether it is serving industrial users who operate warehouses or construction crews that may use its Dewalt Tool Connect system, which makes it possible to monitor battery performance with a smartphone. If a company doesn’t start establishing its position in the marketplace, he says, “The walls can get very high, very quickly.”