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Medtronic's Labs Use RFID to Track Down Tools

Personnel can determine the locations of oscilloscopes, meters and other devices, and document any items that leave the labs, as well as who took them.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 29, 2010When Carl Closmore, the lab supervisor at Medtronic's Electronic System Design (ESD) division, in Mounds View, Minn., considered ways to help him locate any of the 2,600 electronic tools in use at his three laboratories, he visited other companies that similarly manage large numbers of tools, in order to view how they addressed the problem. What he found was that other labs had similar difficulties—determining a tool's whereabouts was often done visually, by looking around engineers' workstations and under papers, and sending out mass e-mails. Locating tools required for calibration or maintenance purposes could take weeks, and even then, not every item could be retrieved. It seemed to be an issue that plagued many labs, Closmore says, noting that the "inability to locate equipment in a timely manner decreases productivity and morale."

Therefore, Closmore began working with enterprise software platform provider Stratum Global and automatic-identification systems integrator AbeTech, to design an RFID solution that he could use to track down items within the labs, as well as know when any equipment is removed from one of the three sites—and by whom. The solution, which utilizes handheld and fixed RFID readers and software purchased from Stratum Global and AbeTech, has been in place for three years, Closmore says. During that time, the system has saved thousands of hours that would otherwise have been spent searching for the missing equipment. A separate Medtronic department has recently adopted part of that solution at its own location, using handheld readers only, while another is currently preparing to do the same.

Dave Erenberg, the ESD division's principle design technician, pushes a cart loaded with tagged equipment through a lab's RFID portal.

Medtronic develops medical technologies and equipment used worldwide. The three ESD labs employ 38 technicians and 47 engineers who design and test all implantable cardiac pacing systems and defibrillator devices that the company provides. The labs comprise a total of more than 100 workbenches in approximately 15,000 square feet of space. Not only do technicians and engineers need to know where its equipment—such as handheld meters, analyzers and oscilloscopes—is in order to use it, Closmore also needs to find about 150 items per month that are due for calibration. Although he had initially considered a bar-code solution or a manned tool crib (in which equipment not in use would be stored and made available to technicians and engineers), those methods still required extra labor hours to check the tools out to individuals, and to manually find any missing items. What's more, the company wanted a system that would not require staff members to sign for a specific piece of equipment, and to then feel responsible for that item until it was returned to a designated area.

Closmore settled on a solution employing EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags, as well as ThingMagic Mercury fixed readers installed at the doorways to three laboratories. At each portal, one interrogator is wired to four antennas, two are mounted on the wall near the ceiling at the front side of the doorway and two are mounted on the wall near the ceiling at the back side, enabling the Statum Global TagNet software to ascertain whether equipment is entering or leaving a room. He also placed motion detectors and cameras above the doorswired . Stratum Global’s TagNet software manages data from the RFID readers, as well as from the motion detectors and cameras, and interprets that information. The AbeTech software then integrates that tag data with Medtronic's back-end management system so that it can be viewed by employees on Medtronic's database. The lab also has several Motorola MC9090-G RFID handheld readers with a Geiger-counter function that emits a beep at greater frequency upon nearing specified RFID tags, so that Closmore can more easily locate tools that require calibration.

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