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Asset Tracking in Big Organizations

Large organizations have a hard time tracking assets, like laptops. Pilots at one of the largest US government agencies, the Social Security Administration, prove RFID and creative thinking can save money.
By Bob Violino
Jul 20, 2003July 21, 2003 -- Huge organizations are not known for innovation, especially huge organizations that happen to be government agencies. But every now and then, even in government, a spark of an idea catches fire. After watching a presentation of an RFID system in action, Gary Orem saw the technology's potential benefits for the Social Security Administration (SSA), one of the nation's biggest government bureaucracies.

The SSA's Office of Supply and Warehouse Management had already been using a warehouse inventory system -- one that employed handheld bar code scanners -- from automated data collection specialist Intermec Technologies, an Everett, Wash., division of Unova.

Readers scan ID cards at checkout
"Intermec came to us with tags that could be read at 40 feet and at a rate of 40 per second, and we wanted to see what we could do with them," says Gary Orem, an SSA team leader and information technology specialist. Specifically, Orem wanted to see how the agency could use RFID tags to keep tabs on its $350 million worth of capital assets (notebook computers and other high-priced equipment) and its fleet of 86 automobiles available to employees at its headquarters in Woodlawn, Md.

To track its capital assets and its vehicle fleet, the SSA had been using systems that required employees to manually fill out forms (a 10- to 15-minute process) whenever someone wanted to take a laptop or other asset out of the building or use an agency car. Not only was the paperwork labor-intensive, but there was no provision for checking equipment back in, which made it difficult to know what was available and what had gone astray.

To prove RFID could improve this grossly inefficient process, Orem decided to use one of SSA's supply rooms as a test site. Located at SSA's headquarter complex, the supply room operates like a retail store, serving 1,100 employee customers monthly who come to stock up on office supplies. The store stocks 1,200 different items, and sells $1.2 million worth of office supplies annually.

Orem chose the supply room for this pilot because he thought that a pilot there could be small and unobtrusive and therefore would be simpler to carry out. "That way it was unnoticeable to store users, and we didn't have to work with SSA's security or systems teams or unions in order to trial the technology," he says.

Launched in November 2002, the supply-room pilot utilized Intermec's standard developer's kit. The kit includes an ITRF 915 MHz fixed reader and antenna, read/write Intellitag 915 MHz RFID tags and an Intermec 2100 RFID Access Point, which is an 802.11 (Wi-Fi) router used to connect the reader to the corporate network. Along the way the company added another reader and access point and 500 or so tags. Altogether, the SSA spent just $11,000 in RFID hardware.

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