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How can the application of RFID technology add value to my Records Center Operations? - February 2005

When we look at how RFID technology has made an impact in certain areas it is curious that it has not yet had an impact in the Records and Information Management Profession and its related and supporting industries.

With the US DoD - Department of Defense, The Gillette Company, Wal*Mart Stores, Inc., The Procter & Gamble Company, Johnson & Johnson, DHL Solutions, and many others embracing, or investigating the potential for the use of, and the potential efficiencies offered by RFID why have we, the Information Management Industry not been one of the parties included in the every expanding list of users above?

Let’s get back to basics.

What is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)?

The EPCglobal Network website @ EPCglobal Network website states the following: RFID stands for radio frequency identification. It is a technology that has existed for decades. At a simple level, it is a technology that involves tags that emit radio signals and devices called readers that pick up the signal. RFID technology is a fundamental element of the EPCglobal Network. Once you have read this article, then hopefully (if I have done my job correctly) you will need to research additional information related to RFID technology and the EPCglobal Network website @ EPCglobal Network website is just the place to start your research.

What is the EPCglobal Network?

EPCglobal Inc. is a joint venture between EAN International and the Uniform Code Council (UCC) and is governed by the EPCglobal Board of Governors.

The stated aims of EPCglobal Inc. are:

The Board of Governors of EPC Global will guide the organization towards achieving worldwide adoption and standardization of EPC technology in an ethical and responsible way. The Board will have between 15 and 21 members with an emphasis on end-users of the technology who are early adopters. The composition of the board will reflect the diversity of industries and geographies that EPC technology will span in the coming decades. Members of the board will be selected not only for their organizational affiliations, but also for individual expertise, their personal commitment and their leadership in global commerce.

Enough of the basics and who the driving forces are, and down to “What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)”!

I recently visited the US and my daughter had just moved to Oklahoma City. To get from point to point we needed to use the Turnpike/Expressway. Having the right change in coins and knowing when and where to pull off to pay the Tool Fee was an inconvenience.

Solution: Purchase a Toll Pass. What is the toll pass device but a RFID Unit (I say Unit rather than Tag) because this device has a power source and is not a Passive Unpowered reflector type RFID device. It has an aerial inbuilt which does not require the identification of the Tag to rely on an external source for its energy as it is a self powered, stand alone unit as against [the mobile reading wand or a static sensor at the point of entry and exit to a store or library which use Passive Unpowered Tags ] so as to be able to reflect or transmit a signal back from the Passive Unpowered Tag to the powered sensor. The Toll Pass RFID unit can both transmit and receive data in its own right due to it being powered.

The RFID signal unit is mounted on the front windscreen of the vehicle and as one speeds along the Turnpike/Expressway at 50 or 60 MPH when one approaches the toll station a fixed RFID signal transmitter mounted above or below the roadway sends out a continuous signal and the RFID unit mounted in the vehicle has the ability to turn itself on or off based on this external trigger and then it sends out a signal in response (as it has its own power source) with its own ID and if you have paid your account you receive a visual indicator beside the roadway which advises you that all is well and that you have paid your toll fee. A message is provide which states e.g. Thank you for using the XX Turnpike/Expressway or Have a wonderful day, etc.

If by chance you are getting low on the funds you have paid into your Toll Pass account the display on the Turnpike/Expressway will advise you e.g. you have XX miles left on your account or if you have an automatic top up to your Toll Pass account the message may advise that they will be taking funds from your account based on some predefined arrangements. If no arrangements are in place the display will advise you to transfer some funds to your Toll Pass account. If none of the above is actioned they take a photo of your vehicle number plate and send you a reminder notice or if all else fails send you a demand notice for non payment for using the Turnpike/Expressway.

OK you already knew about the Turnpike/Expressway system! But wait a minute what is involved here and can we do something of the same in our Records Center environment.

Let’s think out of the BOX (pun) ? here!

Let’s say we do the following:

When we sell/supply storage boxes to our clients we also incorporate a Passive Unpowered Tag built into the fabric of each box (or if we really get serious with each file cover) and we charge the client as we do now for the boxes and or (FILE COVERS) which incorporates the RFID Passive Unpowered Tag. If we sell the RFID Passive Unpowered Tag as a separate item then the cost is a visible component for the client to see on his or her invoice. If on the other hand we have successfully promoted the concept of being able to provide improved efficiency and e.g. faster turn around times or some other improvement as an updated service being provided and the cost of that improved service is by virtue of its desirability accounted for in slightly increased charges for the storage boxes provided. This concept also locks the client into possibly using only our boxes (or even file covers or some other relevant product) supplied by your organisation which enables the client and ourselves to reap the benefit of this improved efficiency. The WIN – WIN situation we are all striving to achieve.

What about the RFID enabled FILE COVERS? Is the supply of file covers a revenue stream that you currently enjoy, (if so, CONGRATULATIONS!) or are the file covers being supplied by other parties? If you were able to have all, or even some of your clients purchase file covers with embedded RFID Passive Unpowered Tag included, would your revenue stream increase, and also Improve your profit margin?

Where could, or should you use RFID technology in your organisation?

Sorry, but I am not a Specialist involved in the day to day operation of a Records Center within the Commercial Information Management Industry so I will attempt to give you some ideas based on my limited perspective that you may wish to consider.

Maybe the following statement from the US Department of Defense will convince you of the potential breadth of applications that they believe that RFID technology will encompass.

[DoD/USA, 23.10.2003] The US Department of Defense announced the establishment of a RFID Policy. All items shall be tagged, except sand, gravel and liquids.

WOW, except sand, gravel and liquids. Now that leaves one or two (million or is that billion, or trillion) items available to be provided with RFID tags as a part of this DoD directive.

The new DoD policy will require suppliers to put passive RFID tags on the lowest possible piece part/case/pallet packaging by January 2005.

Pretty inclusive!

Do you, or does this industry in general wish to join this revolution? Early adopters will gain the most benefit and no doubt may register some pain if they get it wrong at this relatively early stage in the widespread implementation of RFID applications.

When I do my shopping at the local supermarket I have a chat with the check out operators and one young operator I meet from time to time (he dropped six bottles of my wine some years ago so we remember each other) I keep pointing out to him the potential of him not having a job at some future time (I believe sooner that some people think) when all of the items in the store have an RFID Tag and not a Barcode. When this process is in place no more CHECK OUT PERSONS as I will fill my trolley with products and I will pass a static RFID device which will read all RFID TAGS and give me a total cost for my trolley for me to accept and pay, or to query the account. At the same time my shopping trolley will be weighed and the contents listed on my charge slip will be calculated against the known weight of the goods registered via the RFID process and I will be allowed to proceed, or if there is a discrepancy between the two, a real live human will intervene and address the situation. Maybe I had my grand-daughter sitting in the trolley and as she does not have an RFID Tag so she upsets the status quo of the weight checking process.

I know, I know, what has this got to do with your business and the Commercial Information Management Industry?

My answer, EVERYTHING!

It shows us what might, or will be possible.

If e.g. we did not have to place barcode labels on boxes manually (hopefully currently your storage boxes are provided with barcodes when they are manufactured for you and also printed with your organisations details), but I digress. We will assume that for the sake of this exercise that the manual addition of barcodes is provided either by your staff, or that of your clients is the current state of play.

What other manual task are we required to perform in the process of:

1. filling a box with files at the client’s location;

2. picking up the box from the client and recording it for transport to your facility;

3. recording the arrival of the box at your facility;

4. transporting the box to the stack/shelving and recording the position for maintenance and retrieval.

If we had an arrangement with the client for the Records Center to identify and record each file in a box for future retrieval there would be more manual and chargeable work to be carried out on the boxes received from the client at their point of entry to the Records Center.

As an alternative if we now move to an operational RFID environment what would, or could change?

1. The client would wand each file containing a RFID Passive Unpowered Tag (as they do currently with a file cover that is bar-coded) but this time instead of wanding each file cover individually the client would fill each box with a grouping of files (in sequence or at random) and then pass the RFID wand over, or by the box in one sweep and all file covers located in that box along with the box RFID would be sensed and the resultant intelligent data file registered into the clients system (maybe you have another revenue stream opportunity here in supplying the RFID hardware and software to the client?). When the number of boxes in question has being completed for that grouping of files this data would, or could be transmitted from the clients database to your Records Center and or pickup vehicle and a hard copy or electronic copy of the shipment details being kept with the shipment.

2. On receipt by the pickup vehicle from the clients site of the shipment if the shipment details had been transmitted to the pickup vehicle the pickup person would have a copy of the data file in the vehicle and also in a hand held device. On arriving at the pickup point the pickup person would wand the shipment and verify it correctness or identify any missing boxes and or files and take appropriate action.

3. On transfer of the boxes to the vehicle the process of cross checking would, or may be repeated as the vehicle would have an RFID sensor at its entry point and a match, or mismatch of the shipment loaded would be verified or an exception report generated.

4. On arrival at the Records Center the process would reoccur with the shipment passing a static sensor of some capability with a length of field of signal response suitable for the application whatever that distance is e.g. one or fifty feet or one or fifty yards.

5. The boxes would then be loaded onto the stack/shelving either in sequence or at random and the location identified by the stacker RFID sensor noting the stack/shelving location and the box being placed in that location (plus the file ID if we had included RFID Passive Unpowered Tag on each file cover). An ongoing audit of the storage facility could be carried our by the stacker unit sensing all RFID Passive Unpowered Tags on the physical stack/shelving locations as it went about its daily routine of the loading and unloading of boxes from the stack/shelving. This process would eliminate the need to carry out daily, weekly or monthly (or some other time frame) audits of the actual location of boxes or files. (I am making an assumption here that some sort of audit process is carried out from time to time to verify box and file locations within the Records Center so that any misfiles, errors and or exceptions can be identified and rectified.)

Does this hypothetical RFID application detailed above have, or provide the opportunity for improvements in efficiency and the possibility of reductions in overheads and improved profit margins?

NOTE: The RFID Passive Unpowered Tag type and the fixed sensor requirements and distance reading capabilities would have been assessed and decided upon way back in the preparation of a Request for Proposal (RFP) or an Expression of Interest (EOI) which would have been a part of an in-depth evaluation at the start of the investigation on the merits, or otherwise of moving to a RFID environment.

The big question - DO I WISH TO JOIN?

And if so DO I DO IT NOW, OR WAIT AWHILE and see what others do?

As with any improvements in technology the early adopters may be the ones to gain the most benefit.

E.g. When transportation changed to the motor vehicle (horseless carriage) from the horse and cart who gained the most benefit?

When the telephone was introduced did the persons who had the ability to pick up a handset and talk across the road, city, state or country and later across the oceans derive any benefit over those who had to walk across the road or city or send a letter by hand or via the telegraph?

Yes, it is your call. I can only attempt to postulate as to what benefit, if any is available in you’re making the move, be it NOW, SOON or LATER. It is up to you to decide.

Some information on RFID Tags:

RFID Passive tags have read ranges limited to a few feet. ActiveWave RFID tags have a read range of up to 85 meters (~279 feet).

Passive tags have limited data storage capacity compared to the ActiveWave RFID active tags.

Passive tags send data only when they are in close proximity to the RFID reader. Because of the large read range, ActiveWave RFID tags can send data at pre-designated intervals or at certain locations.

There are differing types of RFID Tags:

Read Only Tags: The transponders generally provide a fixed factory-set identification code, which is tamperproof, and are known as Read Only (R/O). The unique code, known as a License Plate, enables the tag to be cross-referenced with a database, thereby allowing the tagged item to be closely followed and monitored.

Read/Write Tags: The customer can modify the tag’s data. This offers advantages in many applications where the identification code needs to be changed, or where variable data is more important than a unique identity.

There are differing features available in RFID Systems:

Multi-Tag True Anti-Collision Capability: One of the outstanding features of the ActiveWave RFID system is its true anti-collision capability. This feature ensures data integrity, when several RFID tags are read simultaneously.

Case studies in the application of RFID Technology:

You may care to visit the following sites to check on what is happening in RFID applications across the globe. The RFID Knowledgebase for 1,159 case studies from 1,321 companies @ The RFID Knowledgebase for 1,159 case studies from 1,321 companies, Application of RFID Technology in managing documents: Document Tracking Applications from Texas Instrument RFID division @ Document Tracking Applications from Texas Instrument RFID division, Express Parcel ID @ Express Parcel ID

Want to know more?

The following web sites should answer your queries.

EPCglobal Inc™ @ EPCglobal Inc™

AIM Global, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility @ AIM Global, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility

Have we got you interested?

Want to give RFID a go?

Ready to test the water and check on the possibilities available to you?

Well here is your chance. Go to the Texas Instruments website @ Texas Instruments website and check on the test kits available. This may be one way of getting involved and seeing if some of the applications I suggested previously in this article are viable or just pipe dreams which will provide a very soft entry point with a limited potential to inflict pain if you believe this to be the BLEEDING EDGE OF THIS TECHNOLOGY.

I trust that this information on RFID technology gives you an insight on what is, or what may be an opportunity for this industry to be more efficient, and hopefully more profitable.

Happy RIMing, Laurie Varendorff ARMA

Laurie Varendorff ARMA

The Author

Laurie Varendorff, ARMA, a former RMAA Western Australia Branch president and national director, has been involved in records management for 31 years. He has his own consulting and training business near Perth, Western Australia, and has tutored in recordkeeping and archival storage and preservation at Perth’s Edith Cowan University. Phone: +61 (0)8 9291 6925; mobile: +61 0417 094 147; email @ Laurie Varendorff

Please Note: This article was first produced in the publication - InFOCUS Magazine - The Quarterly Journal of PRISM International - December 2004 Edition on page (16) and is now avaialable on this website as a part of our agreement.

The author, Laurie Varendorff of the Varendorff Records Management Consultancy - TVC - Helping clients manage their e-World gives permission for the redistribution or republishing of this article by individuals and non profit professional organisations without cost based on the condition that he as well as the URL of the article are recognised at the introduction of the article when redistributed or republished.

SPECIAL NOTE: Use of this article by publishers, commercial, government, or educational organisations requires a financial agreement to be negotiated with Laurie as the copyright holder for this work.