Just about the time you’ve eaten the last of your Y2K chickens and removed the remnants of duct tape holding the plastic to your windows, another disaster comes along. This time, August 14, it was the worst power outage in U.S. history.

At Auto-Tech 2003, the theme of communication was heard from the show floor through virtually all of the conference sessions. How did you manage the crisis? Did you have a plan in place for such a catastrophic event? Being prepared has its benefits, and the auto industry was prepared for the power outage — for the most part. Being prepared is one thing; being able to execute the plan turned out to be something else.

Communication, or the lack thereof, was a key part of the session Crisis Management, presented by leaders from the Big Three auto makers. As Cam Hill of DaimlerChrysler noted, his company had a crisis management program in place; however, no one anticipated loss of the entire electrical power grid.

“You can have all of the elements of a successful plan in place,” said Hill, “things like protection of employees, rapid response and limited impact to business operations; however, the reliance on our ability to communicate was understated.”

The disruption to telecommunications seemed to nullify the best-laid plans.

Rick Dufour, General Motors, said plans need to be maintained and updated. “We thought we’d be covered with cell phones,” he said, “but cells became jammed with so many people calling. Fortunately, we had our disaster plan backed-up on a laptop computer and were able to drive to our plant in Flint [Michigan] and control the Detroit situation from there.”

Rolf Sletten of Ford Motor Company said people at the line-management level are key communicators in the time of crisis since they are closest to action and most knowledgeable. “You need to have a standard approach to crisis management throughout your organization,” Sletten advised. He added that a coordinated effort, communicated throughout the company, of what’s required is a key to successful recovery.

Keynote speaker Harold Krivan, senior partner and executive vice president, J.D. Power and Associates, said a critical mission within the automobile industry is the delivery of information. “The use of knowledge,” said Krivan, “is the critical edge groups have for working together.”

He stressed the importance of communicating information and involving more people in the decision-making process, “because with fewer people involved, and more data being generated, it can equal bigger problems.”

Krivan presented a scenario depicting how, with fewer people involved in solving a problem, the implementation stage is extended. “When you have many people working on a problem, you can implement the solution faster because the lines of communication have been reduced,” he said.

On the show floor, the talk was about machines communicating with other machines and with humans. It was apparent that radio frequency identification (RFID) is (and will be in the future) the primary translator in all this communication.

Chris Barnes at Interlink Logistics Technologies was talking about an electronic kanban system his company offers. The benefits of this, and similar electronic notification systems, are many. Rather than have an employee physically retrieve a card from a workstation requiring replenishment, then make an additional trip to deliver the goods, the operator presses a button to notify replenishers when parts reach a specified level. “Along with the benefits of immediate replenishment, and lights to get the material handler’s attention,” said Barnes, “there is the ability to gather data, real time, and work this information into your warehouse management system or other production programs.”

Gary Latham of WhereNet was explaining how knowing the location of your inventory is as critical as knowing what you have. “Our systems address the weaknesses of conventional supply-chain management systems with wireless technology,” said Latham.

Instead of using traditional methods for identification and tracking, items are fitted with a wireless electronic tag that emits a unique tracking signal. The signal of each tag is then monitored by a cellular system of readers that receive and relay the tag’s location to a database server. The location information is then displayed in map form on a PC or workstation either locally or across the web.

For companies faced with receiving containers and parts, some with conventional bar code labels and some with RFID tags, Intermec was displaying its new RFID reader configured as an accessory handle to go along with the company’s 700 series pocket PC mobile computer. Tim Thul said the snap-on, high-impact plastic and magnesium trigger handle reader comes packaged with its own rechargeable battery pack.

While the retail industry is grabbing the headlines regarding the use, or planned use, of RFID, all indications from Auto-Tech were that it’s the automotive sector that is spending the money.

According to research from Allied Business Intelligence, an estimated 46 percent of the total RFID market today goes to automotive applications. The research indicates that the automobile industry is poised to spend $600 million on the technology in a variety of applications, such as automatic vehicle identification, tire tracking and passive entry systems.

There was a lot of talk during the show about a single tag that can (or will) do it all. That seems to be a technology that is possible; however, it’s still a dream for many users. How soon will this happen? Most suppliers and users were talking about three to five years before we see full-scale applications.

There are many projects in use within the plant walls. The promise of RFID is that it will connect everything from lower tier suppliers to the consumer.

The message vendors and speakers were sending is that the time to fully understand the abilities and intricacies of RFID is now. There are enough automotive applications showing positive returns to prove RFID is only a matter of time, no matter what your industry.