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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
“Promega was the only vendor on campus to push through a solution. Everyone else complains a lot about loss and inaccuracies, but didn’t do much about it,” says Thomas. However, company losses from shrinkage can be passed onto customers through higher prices.

Prior to adopting an RFID solution, the university switched to a Web-based application. Researchers would log in to the site whenever checking inventory in the Promega supply cabinets, then record what they took out before going to the cabinets and removing the items. The cabinets were fitted with locks requiring an RFID-enabled passkey to be opened. Members of each of 12 laboratories were given access passkeys, but there was no way to track individual users or items as they were removed from the cabinets. Before removing items, each user was supposed to log on to the Web site, allowing lab administrators to monitor who was taking which items. However, the process could easily be bypassed.

“There was nothing to stop anyone just walking up with a passkey, taking what they wanted and leaving,” says Thomas.

To circumvent that problem, the cabinets were moved into Thomas’ office so she could keep track of who took what supplies. That, however, meant the cabinets were accessible only when she was in her office. Consequently, Thomas says, researchers wanting to work on a flash of inspiration in the middle of the night were unable to get the supplies they needed.

A year and a half ago, Promega introduced an RFID-based system that managed to provide secure access, ensuring that all materials removed from the cabinets were recorded accurately. As a result, the cabinets were moved out of Thomas’ office.

The university has two Promega storage cabinets—a freezer in which supplies are kept at -20 degrees Celsius, and a nonrefrigerated cabinet to keep supplies at room temperature. Both have been fitted with RFID interrogators. Items stored inside the cabinets have been fitted with RFID tags, each encoded with a unique number. Every authorized researcher at the university has been issued a credit card-sized RFID key card carrying a unique six-digit ID number. So far, around 150 cards have been issued.

When a researcher needs supplies, he or she uses the RFID key card to release the lock. The interrogator reads the key card’s ID number, thereby identifying the researcher, and also reads the item tags in the cabinet before and after it has been opened. This enables the PromegaExpress application to calculate what has been removed.

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