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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
Jul 22, 2013

Four years after an initial installation of radio frequency identification technology, and following several years of improving on that deployment, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is monitoring its inventory of chemicals within 1,200 individual storage areas. The solution, consisting of passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags, handheld readers, printers and software provided by Open Wave RFID, allows laboratory managers and technicians to accomplish inventory checks within a matter of hours, as opposed to the days required to track the same materials via bar-code labels and scanners.

ORNL is the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy national laboratory, with a 3,000-acre campus located in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Researchers at the site focus on neutron science, nuclear energy, systems biology and national security. ORNL stores approximately 105,000 containers of chemicals within storage areas that include everything from flammable cabinets and coolers to shelving in full laboratories. About 25,000 new chemicals enter the ORNL annually, while a similar number are removed. On a regular basis, the national laboratory requires that technicians and other users of these chemicals conduct inventories to reconcile what is on hand with what is listed in the electronic records, according to Jeff Sickau, the manager of ORNL's Hazardous Materials Management Plan (HMMP) and chemical-safety programs. This task was time-consuming using bar codes, he says, since it meant removing each vial, canister or other container from its storage location and scanning every bar code individually.

To conduct inventory counts, a user waves a handheld RFID reader near the chemicals. 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.

"We've been looking into RFID since about 2003," Sickau states, but the ORNL was waiting for the cost of RFID tags to drop to an affordable price. In 2009, the lab decided that tag cost had met that requirement (having dropped to about 20 cents per tag), and thus invested in software, passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags, printers and handheld readers.

The initial RFID system was more efficient than the bar-code solution, Sickau reports, but did not produce the results that the laboratory had hoped to achieve. The read rate was approximately 80 percent, he says, which was not nearly high enough. Some tags were difficult to read on metal, and the software did not provide the details required in the field (at each storage location) to reconcile against the laboratory's electronic records. "We realized early on," he explains, "that you could have 80 percent accuracy, but you could quickly lose any efficiency you gained when trying to find the missing 20 percent."

About two years ago ORNL began working with Open Wave RFID, a solution provider based in Chattanooga, to resolve problems related to RFID read rates and data management from those reads, recalls Tim Waggoner, Open Wave RFID's co-founder. After examining the system in place at ORNL, Waggoner says, it became clear that the software was inadequate, and that the readers, printers and tags were not operating as needed. Open Wave developed a software solution that pulls data from ORNL's existing Hazardous Materials Management Information System (HMMIS), stores information regarding each chemical and links that data to the unique ID number encoded to the RFID tag. Open Wave has since commercialized the solution under the name ChemVue, which includes Motorola 3190z handheld readers, as well as RFID printer-encoders and tags from a variety of vendors.

ORNL took the solution live in 2012. As each new chemical is received, data is input into the HMMIS, after which staff members print an RFID tag with a unique ID number encoded to it, and the same number is printed on the front in both text format and as a 2-D bar code. The adhesive tag is then applied either to the container itself, such as a bottle or canister, or to a zip-lock bag in which the vial or container is placed. In some cases, several vials may be stored with a single bag, to which all of the tags for those vials are affixed. The chemicals are then assigned a particular location and put away in coolers or on shelves.

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