ARCHIVED - Magic and management
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May 09, 2007— St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador
Sounds like magic: wave a wand at a piece of equipment, and the wand then tells you when it was built, when it was installed, when it was last serviced, and any problems it has been having.
In fact, the technology that makes this possible has had a magical effect on Cathexis Innovations, the small St. John's-based firm that developed this system. Founded in 2001 by four young engineers who were building robots at Memorial University of Newfoundland, by the end of 2006 they had signed a $3 million agreement with the organization handling post-secondary education in the United Arab Emirates.
The key to this success has been the company's core product, ID Blue. Featuring a fat stylus that looks much like an overgrown pen, this system reads data contained on radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders, each consisting of a small antenna and a chip for storing data. You need only point this hand-held reader at one of these RFID tags, and the information contained on it is immediately available.
The implications of this seemingly simple device are profound. Information collected quickly and accurately in the field — in offices, warehouses, or anywhere else — can be wirelessly relayed back to an organization's computer database, providing up-to-the-minute inventories of an organization's assets.
That has proven to be especially valuable to Cathexis clients such as Newfoundland and Labrador Forest Services, which has millions of dollars worth of fire-fighting equipment spread out across the province at any given time. When managers begin to assess their ability to devote resources the next fire ravaging the forest, they can quickly take stock of those resources by checking their electronic database and ensuring they have enough to take on the job.
The development of ID Blue was augmented by the National Research Council Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), which provides a range of both technical and business oriented advisory services along with potential financial support to growth-oriented small and medium-sized Canadian enterprises. Delivered by an extensive integrated network of Industrial Technology Advisors (ITAs) — a group of some 260 professionals in 100 communities across the country — NRC-IRAP supports innovative research, development, and commercialization of new products and services.
"NRC-IRAP was absolutely crucial to helping us establish our ID Blue product, which really is our key differentiator," says Cathexis president Steve Taylor, recalling how the program helped them identify potential partners and markets, as well as directly funding some of the initial research activities that were necessary to get this technology in a commercial format.
He adds that the firm also benefited from the input of NRC-IRAP staff, especially the industrial technology advisor, Steve Noseworthy, who followed their progress. "They are very knowledgeable, supportive, and candid — that always helps a lot," he says.
Taylor notes that RFID technology represents an improvement on the bar codes that are currently used to identify many items for sale or storage. As anyone who has used the self-serve checkout in a grocery store has learned, these printed tags are easy to copy, tricky to scan, and downright temperamental or ineffective if they fade or tear.
By contrast, RFID tags can be sealed in holders attached to all kinds of items, including the firefighting equipment that members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Forest Services will be dragging around, such as pumps, valves, compressors, axes, and fuel canisters. Tested with extreme heat or just by hitting them with a hammer, Taylor points out that the performance of these transponders is in no way compromised.
"Bar codes will fail miserably," he says, "but you can encase the RFID tags to withstand
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