Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department Uses RFID to Track Assets Worldwide

By Claire Swedberg

The agency is piloting a solution that employs passive UHF tags and readers to better monitor the furniture and appliances located within the residences of its officials and employees stationed abroad.

image_pdfimage_print

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) is responsible for that country’s diplomatic and consular relations, as well as for promoting international trade. As part of this effort, the agency employs and houses personnel stationed abroad. Every time its employees move into a residence at one of its 170 locations worldwide, DFAIT conducts an audit to determine which assets are within that house, as well as their condition. Until recently, this task was performed manually, but the department plans to expedite the process by means of an RFID-based solution, provided by Ontario company PiiComm.

In some instances, the homes in which DFAIT’s employees live while abroad come fully furnished with not only appliances and furniture, but also, at some sites, items such as lawnmowers, tools and generators. Although the agency has a centralized SAP system, says James Ritari, the manager of logistics and project systems at DFAIT’s Corporate Financial Systems division, the satellite offices in various nations have developed homegrown solutions for managing those homes’ assets. The processes vary from using bar-code scanners on stickers applied to assets, to handwriting the serial numbers or descriptions of items recorded on a spreadsheet, or on a simple paper list. Inventory checks take place both when personnel move out of a residence and when others move in.

Tracking the assets can be time-consuming, Ritari says, even when using bar-code scanners. For example, if a bar-coded label were attached to a couch, an individual would need to locate that label, which could be affixed beneath or behind that piece of furniture. If there were damage to any item, a person would also have to handwrite a record of that imperfection. In some cases, several residences are located near each other, and items turn up missing because they were moved from one location to another. For instance, if a resident hosted an event and used chairs from other homes, but failed to return them, locating the missing chairs could be time-consuming.

In March 2011, DFAIT put out a contract to bid for technology companies that could resolve these and other asset-management problems. It selected PiiComm’s RFID-based solution, known as Advanced Information Data Capture (AIDC), to manage data related to RFID reads of tags attached to assets. The information is stored in the department’s SAP system, while the AIDC software manages the SAP-based data on handheld readers.

DFAIT began piloting the system in May of this year, onsite in Los Angeles and in Beijing, then more recently expanded the pilot to Brasilia, Brazil; Paris, France; San José, Costa Rica; and Berlin, Germany. Each site was provided with several thousand EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags, to be applied to assets, along with one Motorola Solutions MC3190-Z handheld reader. In Beijing and Los Angeles, Ritari was onsite, helping personnel understand how to utilize the system, while the four cities received the handhelds and tags, as well as instructions explaining how to use the technology.

At each location, DFAIT’s office staff attaches RFID tags to assets, ranging from kitchen appliances to rugs and grand pianos; typically, a total of 130 items are tracked within a given residence. The department supplied its offices with three types of tags that can be utilized for different assets—such as a woven tag for rugs that can survive a wash, or adhesive Alien Technology ALN-9640 Squiggle tags, or metal-mount tags.

Before checking inventory, a user docks a handheld reader to a PC, where SAP software stores a list of which items should be located at each residence. The software also stores the unique ID number of each RFID tag attached to an asset. The operator can simply select a prompt to load that data onto the handheld, and then proceed to the residence. By walking through a room with the handheld reader, Ritari says, the user can interrogate most of the assets’ tags within approximately 30 feet (tags mounted on metal objects have shorter read ranges). After viewing the results on the handheld unit and selecting a list of items deemed missing, he or she then has the option of walking through another residence in an attempt to locate those assets. As required, the user can also change an item’s condition directly on the handheld.

Upon returning to the office, the operator places the reader in the computer’s docking location and loads all of the new read data into the system, where DFAIT can then access that information from its central headquarters in Canada. In this way, Ritari says, he can maintain a current list of which assets are at which locations. This information reduces the risk of overstocking some offices due to assets appearing to be missing when they are simply misplaced, and also alerts employees regarding when they need to search for missing items. This can be especially important in some nations, Ritari notes, in which ordering assets can take a great deal of time, often resulting in their being stockpiled.

DFAIT has acquired 200 MC3190-Z readers and 200,000 tags, and plans to procure about 150,000 additional tags for use on all assets located within residences worldwide. Tags include Alien’s ALN-9640 Squiggle Higgs 3 inlays, as well as Confidex‘s Steelwave Micro tags (for metal items) and G2XM Confidex Pino and G2XM Confidex Steelwing labels (for cloth materials).

The pilots at six locations will end in September, Ritari says, at which time his office plans to review how well the technology works, as well as his staff’s response to the technology. To date, he reports, “they are impressed with its ease of use.” He adds that he expects the solution to save the department money in terms of labor previously required for inventory checks, and by reducing excess inventory. “Days of auditing should be reduced to just a few hours,” he states.

During the next two years, Ritari says, the department should begin to realize the system’s full benefits. Currently, the pilot consists of affixing RFID tags to assets, and developing a list of which items are at particular locations within each city, while actual audits of tagged assets are anticipated to take place over the coming months or years. Within two years, DFAIT expects to have the system in place at all of its 170 locations.