Just when you thought memory components couldn't get any smaller, along comes Hewlett-Packard with a miniature wireless data chip - about the size of a grain of rice - that may have applications for manufacturers down the road.The experimental Memory Spot (commercial availability is expected within three to five years), developed by HP Labs, is a memory device with a built-in antenna that can be attached to (sticky-backed) or embedded in almost any object. Information, in audio, video, photo or text form, can be accessed by positioning a device (cell phone, camera, PDA, or other object) closely over the chip, and stored data are instantly transferred to the device.
The Memory Spot differs from RFID technology in that HP's chip is a read-write device, compared to RFID's read-only capacity. RFID systems, developed primarily for product tracking in assembly and warehouse operations, have the ability to be read from a distance, which has also caused some privacy concerns. With HP's technology, information in the Memory Spot can only be accessed by near-field tracking, generally making access to information private.
"Information can be changed or added to the chip, but only by authorized individuals," said Mohamed Dekhil, research project manager at HP Labs, "or it can be programmed with content that cannot be changed at all. This makes the Memory Spot very adaptable to a variety of applications."Some of those applications could include those important to manufacturers. Product/carton attachment, product diversion, warranty fraud and servicing are some of the examples Dekhil envisions for HP's chip. The content contained on the chip goes behind just the model or part number, too. "Now, a manufacturer can include product manual pages, how-to-use or safety information, links to web sites, or a list of available accessories," said Dekhil. "Anything that will make the product more user-friendly or help the consumer to make a better buying decision."
Product diversion is clearly an area where manufacturers might find the Memory Spot to be useful. With more and more companies locating distribution and manufacturing facilities around the globe, keeping track of product shipments and destinations can be a logistical nightmare.
"By attaching a Memory Spot to every product and/or pallet," Dekhil said, "a shipment can be tracked as it moves through the distribution supply chain." Information can be updated and new logs added to the chip as the shipment moves from manufacturing facility to warehouse and on to the final destination.
"In this way, a manufacturer can be sure that products meant to be sold in one place are not sent to another area for sale without the manufacturers' knowledge," commented Dekhil. "A buyer will know if the shipment is in the right place at the right time, and since the chip can only be updated by authorized personnel, there would be no way to tamper with the content."
A manufacturer would even be able to put in place some type of procedure to alert the end-user if a shipment winds up somewhere it shouldn't be.
For products sold with a warranty, the Memory Spot could be used to identify components to make sure that the consumer is not swapping parts to falsify a warranty. This would make it easy for the manufacturer to prove that a certain part or component could not have been installed in the original item.
"To combat warranty fraud, the manufacturer can attach a chip, with serial numbers or other identifying information, to all the parts of a product," explained Dekhil. "The user would not be able to override or change the content on the Memory Spot."
Within a manufacturing facility, HP's chip would make maintenance tasks more "information-friendly." The Memory Spot, when affixed to a machine or product, could contain details on maintenance procedures, when the item was last fixed and by whom, or who to call for service.
"The chip can be used to convey information over a period of time," said Dekhil, "giving the plant a service log that can be accessed right on the spot, rather than having to find printed documents or use a computer terminal to get the information.”