Most RFID technology is either focused on manufacturing or supply-chain applications. But recent personal experiences, coupled with some timely contract announcements, have made me aware of the scope of RFID applications in professional services.
In fields such as law, medicine, insurance, and government contracting, information security is fundamentally a matter of the physical security of paper files. Lost or misplaced files can result in serious financial and/or legal penalties. Therefore, I will use this month's column to explore the way RFID tags can reduce labor and improve accuracy in tracking files and other important documents.
Paper Files -- Stubbornly Resisting the Information Revolution
Those of us who remember the computer industry in the 1980s will undoubtedly have heard many promises about the "paperless office" solving the administrative burden of professional services. The information-technology revolution -- led by the personal computer, flat-bed scanner, database program, and graphical display -- was supposed to eliminate the office file-cabinet and secretarial typing pool. Fortunes were made and lost chasing this idea (think of once-mighty Wang Industries, for example). Although Microsoft Word may have made the typing-pool obsolete, the office file cabinet continued to grow and many of those secretaries were simply re-deployed to enter file-locator data into tracking spreadsheets.
The reasons for the continued importance of paper-based files include human-factors considerations and records-retention laws. From a human-factors standpoint, many service providers work in an environment where mobile computers are impractical or cumbersome. A doctor or nurse, for example, would much rather make a notation on a paper chart that stays by a patient's bedside than log into even the most sophisticated tablet computer.
Where electronic records are practical, such as in accounting or insurance applications, records-retention laws may require the preservation and tracking of supporting evidence such as receipts, photographs, or field damage reports. I worked for one insurance client who had a sophisticated Web-based imaging application for their routine work but still needed to make sure they had all critical documents in a physical archive. They referred to their supporting document packages as "the golden file." If they were sued over a claim, and failed to find the original physical documents requested by the plaintiff's attorney, they could be liable for millions of dollars of damages -- hence the need to treat (and track) every claims file as if it were made of gold.
Similar requirements operate within law, medicine, accounting, and government, thus assuring the continued importance of document retention and tracking. The usual way to track the files is through keystroke entries within a database program. But now the latest RFID technology is attempting to make this task more efficient and accurate by eliminating the possibility of human error in acquiring and entering file locator data.
For Gen2 UHF tags, we generally use a rough estimate of $0.75 per tag to account for the fully-burdened cost of tags and supporting systems within the supply chain. So in considering the use of RFID within the services industry, it is helpful to think, "Which documents are worth spending roughly a buck each to track?" As you might expect, the federal government (which regards document creation and hoarding as a core competency) has asked, and answered, that question already.
Government Services Administration Program
A recent press release from 3M Systems announced that they had won a five-year contract from the Government Services Administration (GSA) to provide RFID document-tracking technology. GSA runs all U.S. Government procurement of common-use items such as office supplies and building maintenance supplies. The 3M systems will be used to track purchase orders and government contract documents. The systems include tags, hand-held scanners, fixed-point readers, and software. With this contract, GSA becomes the most high-profile user of 3M's RFID technology.
3M and a few other companies (such as Dynasis and Magellan) have pioneered in this area of RFID technology. The RFID technology challenges are much different in an office environment than in a traditional supply-chain application. For example, an RFID records-tracking system may have to read many RFID tags stacked on top of each other within a file, whereas supply-chain applications can generally assume that RFID tags have good physical separation. The 3M system relies on proprietary tags and hand-held scanners to assure good tag reads.
Dynasis approaches the problem by embedding an array of readers within a purpose-built filing cabinet. Hardware manufacturer Magellan touts the benefits of high-frequency tags using their proprietary phase-jitter modulation (PJM) technology for reading data from stacked tags. All of these techniques enable office-based RFID to fulfill the same objective as our familiar supply-chain RFID technology, which is the automatic collection and tracking of data without the need for human intervention and subsequent possibility of human error.
Health Care Services
In the same week that 3M announced their GSA contract award, Intermec announced the results of their work to provide Capital Health Systems of Trenton, N.J. with a document-tracking solution for medical records. Intermec adapted their traditional EPC Gen2 UHF products (tags, hand-held computers with embedded RFID readers, and fixed-point readers) to a hospital environment with the help of health-care software company Infolinx Systems Solutions. Capital Health Systems is using the Intermec system to track the movement of approximately 5,000 medical records throughout its 589-bed hospital facility. Their administrative director stated that incidents of misplaced files have "seen a significant decrease" since they began using the Intermec system.
The Intermec system is technically more similar a supply-chain RFID application than the 3M stacked-tag system, since it relies on motion of a tag past a fixed scanner to track files (much as retailers rely on RFID portals to track the movement of goods out of a stock room.) The Intermec handheld computers are used as scanners to quickly search offices and work areas for missing files. Since the life-cycle of a medical file is longer than the typical shipping duration of a retail carton, Intermec is able to build a good return-on-investment case for this unique records-management application.
Most RFID applications have been driven by supply-chain considerations. As the technology matures, we can expect to see new areas of RFID innovation and growth. Services are an attractive emerging market with some key players providing technology and solutions.
Paul Faber is a Principal with Raleigh, N.C.-based Tompkins Associates, a supply-chain-solutions consulting firm. As the chief manager of RFID equipment implementation at Tompkins Emerging Technology Center, he possesses extensive experience in material handling solutions, systems integration, and installation. Paul has managed field integration and operations activities at material handling sites around the world.
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