Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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Invention and innovation: An introduction

10.9.2 New technology

The appearance of a new technology often results in the possibility of developing a whole range of new products. The invention of the transistor in the USA by Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley in 1947 led to a vast market of improved consumer electronics goods such as portable radios, hi-fi and television. Later on, the related inventions of the integrated circuit in 1959 (by Jack St Clair Kilby at Texas Instruments) and the microprocessor in 1971 (by Marcian E. Hoff at Intel) allowed the development of personal computers.

Increasing miniaturisation and the improved computing capacity of microprocessors has permitted the addition of electronic components to many new products and processes. Examples are all around: palm-size mobile phones, programmable timing devices in electrical equipment, TV and video remote controllers. This trend is heading towards the invention of a growing range of new intelligent products that can store information about themselves and communicate with their environment (see Box 4).

Box 4 Radio frequency identification tags

RFID tags can be attached to individual products and can contain detailed information about that product such as its constituents, price, date of manufacture and so on. There's a confident prediction that by 2012 RFID tags will have replaced barcodes. This is given credence by the fact that in June 2003 the Wal-mart retail company announced that it would require all its suppliers to put RFID tags on all products by 2005. Tesco also announced that it would introduce RFID into its entire supply chain by 2007.

There are three main components of an RFID tag system:

  • A tag comprises electronic circuitry and an antenna (Figure 37). The tag acts as a data store and a wireless transponder that sends information about that product in response to interrogation from a reader.

  • A reader transmits and receives signals.

  • A computer system processes the information it receives from the reader.

Figure 37
Figure 37 (a) Strip of RFID tags. (b) Two tags ready to be attached to products (Source: Omron Electronics Ltd)

RFID tags are more robust than barcodes because they can suffer some damage and still be read. Another advantage is they don't require direct line-of-sight contact with readers – in fact some tags can be read from distances of several tens of metres and through obstructions. As well as passive RFID tags, there are also active tags with their own power supply that allows product data to be modified and increases the transmission distance significantly.

RFID tags were first used in stock control and ordering, and in inventory checking. Products can be tracked as they move from factory to storeroom to shelf, reducing losses of stock in the supply chain and increasing the accuracy of restocking. In some systems, so-called smart shelves read the RFID signals from individual products and when stock runs low the ordering system is triggered to order more stock from the supplier. The idea is that at some point every product in the world will be tagged in this way so it can always be identified and traced. In 2003 Gillette ordered 500 million RFID tags from manufacturers Alien Technology Corp to be added to its products.

As well as stock control, RFID technology is being used in an increasing number of applications. By the time you read this it could well have become a mainstream technology, but at the time of writing it is still emerging. Recent (2005) applications include proximity card security systems in buildings, identification by a microchip inserted under the skin of domestic pets, and even tags used on nightclubbers. Pilot projects have been taking place to put RFID tags into vehicle licence plates, bank notes and hospital patients. A school in the US has already started to use RFID tags to monitor the movement of pupils. Not surprisingly some of these applications have raised concerns about the implications of this technology for individual privacy.

There are concerns that RFID could be used to tell,

… anyone who has the right kind of scanning device – from burglars to the government – what you have bought, where from, how much it costs, and anything else that might be added to an item's database entry, such as who bought it.

(Shabi, 2003)

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