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Active RFID Brings Light to Equipment Search

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Advanced Light Source division is employing RF Code RFID hardware and AssetPulse software to track equipment used on light-generating accelerators.
By Claire Swedberg
Jul 22, 2011Advanced Light Source (ALS), at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is installing an active RFID tag solution from RF Code to track the 125 pieces of equipment that scientists and technicians utilize within various sections of the multiple-building facility. The system includes software provided and hosted by California asset-tracking software firm AssetPulse.

ALS is a laboratory that generates intense beams of invisible light for the purpose of scientific research. Light produced at that facility—in the X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum—is one billion times brighter than that of the Sun. The X-ray and ultraviolet beams are generated by bunches of electron traveling at nearly the speed of light, forced into a circular path by magnets and through tubes, to reach experiment end-stations. Scientists utilize this intense degree of light to conduct research in materials science, biology, chemistry, physics and the environmental sciences. ALS' technicians maintain the accelerator that generates that light. These technicians, as well as scientists, require a variety of tools—mostly vacuum pumps, along with spare parts for the accelerator—that they can borrow and then return to an ALS storage area.

RFID readers are used to identify necessary tools within the warehouse, or to conduct inventory checks.

During business hours, each technician provides his or her name before borrowing a piece of equipment from the ALS storage area, which is then recorded on an Excel spreadsheet. The technicians often work at night or outside of normal business hours, however, and at such times, these items can become missing until a technician returns them. Frank Zucca, ALS' senior mechanical engineering technical associate, is responsible for managing the equipment. Previously, he sent staff members throughout the labs once annually, in order to locate all missing equipment. That, he says, could require a three-day project for him and approximately three other employees.

Sujatha Bodapati, AssetPulse' CEO and founder
To make that inventory process faster, and to achieve greater visibility into the locations of tools throughout the year, ALS decided to try several options. The team began working with AssetPulse, which provides RFID system software and installs a variety of RFID hardware solutions for tracking assets. The use of RFID at ALS would be challenging, however, says Sujatha Bodapati, AssetPulse' CEO and founder, due to the high volume of metal within the facility. "It's a very RFID-hostile environment," she explains. "There is a great deal of metal." In fact, some of the equipment is covered with a thick layer of aluminum. This equipment, Zucca says, is used to assemble the tubes—known as beam lines, through which light travels—as well as other parts of the accelerator, which require an ultra-high vacuum. To achieve such a vacuum, the beam lines must be heated, and aluminum foil is used to hold heat within the beam line and the tools during this process. In some cases, the RFID tags would need to be covered with the foil wrapped around the equipment.

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