$250M IBM Division in Pursuit of Sensors

As IBM's Sensor and Actuation Solutions division sees it, RFID is only one type of sensor technology. Other types of sensors will be used in biometrics, chemical monitoring and more.

When IBM launched its $250 million Sensor and Actuation Solutions division in September, RFID was only one thought in mind, said Robert Mayberry, who heads up the new division as vice president.

Actually, the S&A division started out at IBM as an incubated emerging business opportunity, in the same tradition as other technologies—such as Linux and life sciences—that later became big businesses for the company.

For the past 18 months, S&A has been focusing on RFID, through pilots and deployments at places such as the Metro department store chain, the U.S. Department of Defense and the International Postal Corp., Mayberry said during an interview with eWEEK.com.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead more here about IBMs S&A division.

IBM has also been using RFID internally, to track and trace wafer carriers at its chip production plant in Fishkill, N.Y.

But RFID is merely one of many sensor technologies that the new division will pursue, according to Mayberry. "RFID is one type of sensor, but other sensors can be used in biometrics, chemical and petroleum monitoring, and manufacturing, for instance," he said.

In fact, IBM is already working with Chevron Corp. to monitor temperatures and the types of fluids inside oil pipelines with the use of embedded sensors.

After being beamed out over a satellite network, the information is used in middleware and a billing system to optimize use of the pipeline and automate the billing of usage fees. It can also be remotely accessed in real time by mobile field workers, outfitted with PDAs, Mayberry said.

What spurred IBM to pump $250 million into the new S&A division, anyway? Mayberry pointed to a combination of two factors: projected customer demand for sensor devices, plus previous investments by IBM into a variety of technologies that are expected to play roles in sensor-driven applications.

In fact, The Yankee Group has projected that the RFID market alone will approach $1 billion by the end of 2004, and over $4 billion by 2008.

Harbor Research, another industry analyst firm, foresees the existence of 1.2 billion devices in the "smart sensor" category by 2005.

"We want to take what weve been doing with capturing and processing business rules—along with our WebSphere, DB2 and Tivoli software—and extend it all out beyond the four walls into [intelligent] devices," Mayberry said.

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