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RFID Brings Order to a Chaotic Office

Florida State University is the first educational institution to adopt 3M's RFID Tracking System—and recoup its investment in less than a year.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 12, 2006The Offices of Sponsored Research Services and Sponsored Research Accounting Services at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee administers more than $182 million in research grants for some 1,200 projects each year. On any given day, there are roughly 3,500 project files in the office, to which more than 40 employees have routine access.

Until recently, the system for keeping track of all these files was inefficient, with employees often spending hours apiece searching for missing files. An employee who wanted a particular file would write the file number on an "out card," sign the card and put it on the shelf in the file's place. Once checked out, a file might change hands several times and be off the shelf for months. Typically, someone other than the person who checked it out would return it to a central inbox. Student workers would then return the file to its shelf and remove the out card.

Faced with chaos, Hefren turned to RFID to organize FSU's immense filing system.

Given this system, it's no surprise files were often lost. When that happened, Judy Hefren, FSU's assistant director of Sponsored Research Accounting Services, would send an e-mail to the person who originally checked out the file. That e-mail would often be forwarded to someone else who'd borrowed the file, then forwarded again and again to other employees. "There were e-mails flying all over the place," says Hefren. Sometimes the file turned up, but often it remained missing and Hefren or someone on her team would have to make a duplicate file.

A missing file didn't just disrupt work. Many grants the university administers for graduate students need to be closely documented because they come from federal and state agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. "There are compliance guidelines for federal grants to which we need to comply," says Hefren. "If a federal officer came in and looked for a file and we couldn't find it, there would be hell to pay."

Soon after Hefren joined the Sponsored Research Accounting Services team in 2005, she knew a new system for keeping track of files was needed, but her co-workers assumed other systems would cause too much disruption, or be too expensive. "When I started, people told me, 'Judy, this is just the way it is. You're going to have to accept it.'"

Hefren did not accept it. Instead, she did an online search for the term "file management" and found a link to 3M's file-tracking system, which uses passive RFID tags to track and inventory files. This sounded like the perfect solution to Hefren—it was "reasonably priced, and from a company everyone knew"—so she didn't consider any other technologies that her search unearthed. In early 2005, a 3M representative gave Hefren and her staff a demonstration of the system, and by May the system was deployed.

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