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RFID Tracks Chemical Inventory at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

ORNL manages its inventory with passive EPC UHF RFID tags, using a handheld reader to identify the locations of chemicals at hundreds of storage locations.
By Claire Swedberg

To conduct inventory counts, a user uploads all inventory data from the ORNL server to the handheld, via a docking station and an Open Wave software interface. The Open Wave software loaded on the handheld then stores that information. The user enters his or her ID, indicating in which storage area he or she is conducting an inventory count, and the Open Wave software populates the screen with a list of all items that should be located within that area. The user next waves the handheld near the chemicals, and the software highlights any items that should have been read and were not, as well as any that were read but should be located elsewhere.

In the event of a missing item, employees can pull up details on the handheld and determine, based on the description listed, where that item should be located, and then physically look for it there. Alternatively, they can place the handheld in Geiger counter mode and begin searching for the item by waving the reader near the stored chemical inventory until the unit indicates that it has found that product.

ORNL's Jeff Sickau

Once finished, the handheld reader can again be docked, and all data is then uploaded back into the HMMIS chemical-management software on the server via the Open Wave interface.

Since the latest version of the RFID solution has been in place, Sickau reports, personnel have indicated that it saves time by about 80 percent. "When we first initiated [the use of RFID], we sent out instruction sheets for tag placement," he says. The instructional material helped employees understand where the tags should be placed for greatest read rates. Since then, ORNL personnel have learned to attach tags accordingly. "We've also improved read rates with the type of reader we're using," he adds, noting that the device has a more circular-shaped antenna that can interrogate a tag at any orientation.

"It's been a real learning process for us," Sickau says, noting that there were few existing RFID solutions for the type of inventory ORNL was tracking. Now, other national laboratories and commercial pharmaceutical firms have been visiting ORNL to view its RFID system in action.

In the future, Sickau says he would like to see the solution also used for waste management related to the disposal of chemicals that have expired and need to be discarded or recycled. In addition, he hopes the Open Wave software can be employed to determine if two incompatible chemicals are being stored too near each other, and to issue alerts to users if that is the case.

Open Wave RFID is now providing the same solution to another national lab, Waggoner says, as well as to at least one pharmaceutical company. The company often helps clients with RFID-related concerns, he adds, such as those faced by ORNL—namely, installations of RFID technology that may not work well due to problems with the tag, antenna or reader selection or placement. "I see that kind of thing all the time," he states.

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