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TNO Uses RFID to Track Its Assets

After carrying out an RFID pilot using the TraSer open-source platform, the Dutch research company is now employing a 13.56 MHz passive RFID solution developed entirely in-house.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 30, 2010TNO, a Netherlands research company based in Delft, serves as a "knowledge broker" for government agencies, small and midsize enterprises, and commercial businesses. The organization helps its clients to develop better products, and also provides recommendations regarding policy and processes. "We advise our customers, moreover, on finding the optimum solutions that are geared precisely to the questions they have," says Matthijs Vonder, a TNO scientist and project manager.

To better track the movement of equipment it uses in that effort, TNO is employing a combination of RFID and bar-code technologies. The organization's sensor lab has approximately 200 devices, comprising a variety of equipment heavily used in research, such as PDAs, RFID interrogators, ZigBee nodes, bar-code scanners, mobile phones, cables and AC/DC adapters. By implementing an RFID-based tracking system, the institute hoped to gain an understanding of which personnel utilized the equipment, how often they did so, where they were at any specific time, which assets were unnecessary and not being used, and which individuals have the experience to work with specific devices (in other words, who the previous users were).

TNO's RFID booth consists of a desktop RFID interrogator and a handheld bar-code scanner.
"We wanted to develop a system in which all devices would be registered, and their data stored to track their usage and movement," Vonder says. Management required a central location in which to store documentation and software, and it needed to be so easy that employees would be willing to use it.

TNO's interest in RFID coincided with the development of TraSer, a three-year EU-funded project launched in 2006 to test Internet-based software, in order to enable European companies to share supply chain data. TNO was one of several European firms that tested RFID technology in conjunction with TraSer, an open-source platform that could be utilized by businesses to store and share information about items they wished to track—anything from closed-loop assets to products passing through supply chains. The TNO pilot with TraSer took place in 2008 and 2009, Vonder says, and then led to a full-scale RFID deployment in June 2009.

For its pilot and subsequent full-scale deployment, TNO affixed a high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz passive RFID tag, complying with the ISO 15693 standard, to each device or piece of equipment, and created a database containing information about those assets. The institute built an RFID "booth," consisting of a desktop RFID interrogator (for reading the asset tags, as well as RFID-enabled employee identification cards) and a handheld bar-code scanner. Each asset or badge tag was encoded with an ID number that, for the sake of redundancy and flexibility, was also printed on the front of the tag in a human-readable format, as well as a 2-D bar code. The ID number was stored in TNO's software.

Before using a tagged item, a worker would first place his ID card near the booth's RFID reader.
Before using a tagged item, a worker would first place his or her ID card near the booth's RFID reader, then place the item near the reader. A user seeking a specific piece of equipment could input the item's ID number or description into the TraSer software in the database, and then view a description of which personnel recently checked that item out, and on which day. Staff members could continually add products to the system by reading a new tag or scanning a bar code, and then entering the item's details into the TraSer Web-based software, running on one of TNO's back-end servers.

Vonder says his company chose to work with HF 13.56 MHz RFID technology for two reasons: to ensure a short read distance in case multiple tagged items or ID badges were in the reader's vicinity, and because the building-access ID cards already used by the staff contained an HF RFID inlay. Employees could then access data by logging on to the TraSer software and inputting the ID number or description of the item for which they searched. They were then presented with the history of which individuals had used that particular asset, and when.

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