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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
The idea was to use RFID to track tagged products at their point of sale in the supply room. Orem's group installed an RFID reader and a single antenna near the room's checkout counter. Included in Intermec's RFID developers kit is five days' worth of programming services. This proved to be the only programming help that the SSA would need, as a single SSA programmer who attended the course went on to develop the reader middleware to collect information and put it into the SSA's existing database as well as user interfaces.
An antenna scans tags on purchases

"What is most impressive about these pilots is that the SSA did all the system development in-house," says Eileen Trent, an account manager in Intermec's Government Solutions Group. In fact, only one SSA computer programmer, Jennifer Leasure, was needed to develop both projects and even then only as side projects to her usual duties, says Orem.

Just four items out of the hundreds in the store were tagged, but the four chosen -- including toner cartridges and hole punches -- were ones that were certain to have a high turnover. During the three-month trial, which concluded in February, the store checkout assistant continued to scan all employee purchases using a hand-held bar code reader.

Comparing results from the bar-code scanning system and the RFID system, Orem found that the RFID reader detected 98 percent of tagged products taken out of the storeroom. "That was very high, and, besides, we know what happened with the missed readings," says Orem. Those misses, he says, came from multiple purchases where customers put only one item on the conveyor belt and left the others in the basket, beyond the read range of the sole antenna deployed for the pilot. "That problem could easily be solved with more antennas," Orem says.

Later in the supply-room pilot, the RFID system was extended through the supply chain to the warehouse. The SSA bought an additional antenna and access point, so it could use RFID to replenish self-service items in the store from the warehouse. SSA computer specialist Jennifer Leasure used Visual Basic to write a front-end application that graphically represented which items were out of stock and worked with the supply room's the existing warehouse inventory database.

According to Leasure, that application could also be used by the SSA's existing warehouse management software supplier Ontario, Canada-based Radio Beacon Inc. to add to its own products. Orem says he's hoping Radio Beacon will use the application to trial RFID in a few pilot projects as part of an "inexpensive brain share" that could benefit both the company and the SSA.

Orem admits the pilot required lots of learning on the fly, and that the technology had some small glitches. He says that although Intermec's tags worked fine, it took them a while to draw enough power from the reader before they could send back their unique IDs to the reader. The reason, Orem later found out, was the tags being used were designed to work through the glass used in car windshields. When attached to a hard plastic surface, the tags needed more time to power up.

"We produce so many variations of RFID chip, that is why we usually work with customers to tweak their systems and change out the equipment to get the right mix," says Intermec's Trent.

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