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Texas Lab Stocks Up With RFID

At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, researchers find that radio frequency identification gets them the supplies they need, 24-7.
By Jonathan Collins
Dec 19, 2005Supplying chemicals and other materials used in biology research can mean walking a fine line. Materials used by commercial and academic research institutions are stored on campus in cabinets installed by the items' supplier, but they remain unpurchased until a scientist or lab worker removes them. Therefore, the products must be readily available for whenever they are needed, but still kept secure with their purchase recorded and tracked remotely.

Traditionally, whenever researchers have removed items in the past, they have been required to fill out paper purchase forms on clipboards attached to a storage cabinet or freezer. University administrators and the product suppliers would then use the forms to verify sales and process payments.

“It’s an honor system,” says Sylvia Thomas, floor laboratory manager and senior research associate of the cardiology division at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Thomas oversees the use of supply cabinets to ensure there are always funds to pay incoming invoices.

The problem, however, is that this system is too time-consuming and doesn’t work very well. Researchers can forget—or be in too much of a hurry—to fill out the purchase forms. “Scientists don’t care how materials are paid for, or how they get them. Their focus is getting research done in a timely manner,” says Thomas, who notes that stolen products are are also a problem. “Some of these materials are high-dollar items, and there is some straight-forward theft.”

Because of the disparity between the recorded transactions and stock left in the cabinet, distributors and manufacturers of life-science supplies suffer not just from the loss of chargeable products, but also from having to visit their customer sites regularly to make sure there is adequate inventory.

“That means that highly paid sales people are spending time just stock-taking,” says Sanjay Tripathi, president and CEO at Terso. The company was formed to market an RFID-enabled solution to enable life-science materials vendors to manage inventory in research facilities better, whether academic or commercial.

Terso is a spin-off company from Promega, which supplies research materials—primarily a substance called Taq DNA polymerase—to the University of Texas. Over the past five years, Promega, with the help of the university, developed an RFID system to track usage of its products. Now, with the University of Texas and more than 100 laboratories around the world using the PromegaExpress RFID system it developed, Promega has handed over sales and development of the system to Terso.

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