Prediction: Wal-Mart Will Influence Sensors


A recent article in InformationWeek magazine says that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is experimenting with sensor technology, pursuing two "proof-of-concepts" that would speed products to shelves and provide customers with better quality produce. And a news release last week tells of how sensors—as part of GE's VeriWise telematics system—will give the retailing giant tracking capabilities for its fleet of 46,000 over-the-road trailers.

Telematics is a term the trucking industry uses to describe the wireless communication of sensor-generated details about freight and equipment. GE's VeriWise is a dual-satellite system that enables timely monitoring of trailer assets even when they are not connected to a tractor.

Motivated to Develop
The press release says that Wal-Mart used its existing leasing relationship with GE's Trailer Fleet Services business to make known its trailer tracking needs. According to Tim Yatsko, Wal-Mart's Senior Vice President for Transportation, "When our shipments are in transit, it's important for us to know at all times their whereabouts and the interior condition of the trailer and its contents." Deborah Reif, CEO of GE Equipment Services says she looks forward to further developing her company's relationship with Wal-Mart as GE expands its asset intelligence capabilities.

As With RFID . . .
Anybody who has been watching the supply chain industry knows what a huge effect Wal-Mart has had in the adoption and development of RFID technology. A few years ago, Wal-Mart calculated that RFID would enable substantial cost savings as well as new capabilities in supply chain management. And so suppliers to Wal-Mart faced a deadline to replace bar codes with RFID tags on pallets to streamline the processing of orders. The stakes were high: those who did not or could not conform would no longer be accepted as suppliers.

Wal-Mart's mandate pushed RFID suppliers to step up product development and drove the supply chain discipline to step up process development. Now that the retail industry's 800-pound gorilla and technology champion has officially recognized the benefits of sensor-derived data, I expect that Wal-Mart will have an impact on the way sensor technology is developed and deployed.

So far the company has announced only internal use, but I won't be surprised to hear of a sensor mandate for suppliers. While sensor technology is more mature and diverse than RFID, its application to supply chain management is still emerging. Such a move would turbocharge the opportunity for sensor developers—who would benefit from later adoption by other retailers. And it's tempting to speculate how all this would affect the rest of the sensor industry.


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