Agilent Launches RFID-enabled Lab-Equipment Inventory Service

Several pharmaceutical companies and other research facilities have opted for the service, whereby Agilent's staff uses handheld UHF RFID readers to track the location and status of equipment.
Published: June 16, 2015

Agilent Technologies, a provider of medical and scientific instruments, supplies and services, is employing ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID technology as part of its CrossLab asset-management service and solution, to help its customers—testing laboratories and pharmaceutical companies—manage their assets. The program includes Agilent’s own inventory-management service, by which its staff conducts inventories of scientific instruments and measuring equipment for its customers, using RFID to make the process faster, more reliable and less intrusive for lab workers.

The CrossLab RFID Inventory Management Service provides laboratories, worldwide, with reports regarding which equipment they have at their facilities, where each item has been and how the devices are configured.

Several customers, including at least one major pharmaceutical company, are using the RFID-enabled CrossLab service to ensure that lab equipment can be located, and that they meet government compliance requirements, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Title 21 regulations on electronic records and signatures.

Laboratories are responsible for managing the location and safety of the equipment they use for research and development. This can be a mammoth project if a lab has thousands of items that need to be accounted for, many of which move from one work station, room or building to another, and might need to be periodically inspected or calibrated. Labs can use their own manual inventory processes by which scientists conduct inventory counts of their equipment and report that data to management. However, this takes the scientists away from their primary jobs, and can require hours or days of work by a large group of employees.

Agilent Technologies, which sells many of the kinds of equipment that need to be tracked, offers CrossLab Inventory Management as a service in which it sends its own personnel onsite to tag and document the asset inventory, thereby sparing scientists from the task. According to Ken Suzuki, Agilent’s global CrossLab marketing director, his firm’s RFID-enabled version of this service can be conducted more quickly and with less disruption for those in the lab than a manual method of stopping to visually identify each item.

“Last year, Agilent delivered custom, RFID-based asset inventory services at several laboratories worldwide,” Suzuki says. Based on those engagements, he adds, the company decided to offer a commercial, off-the-shelf solution, which it named the CrossLab Inventory Management Service. The service uses customer-needs-specific RFID tags for equipment, as well as handheld RFID readers, and Agilent’s cloud-based software for collecting and managing inventory data and sharing that information with Agilent’s laboratory customers.

Agilent selects the appropriate RFID tag based on read quality and range specific to a particular customer’s equipment and site—which, in some cases, may have been modified by a third party to meet CrossLab specifications (such as making items more rugged for the lab environment). The company declines to name any specific tag models. When tagging equipment, Agilent first receives electronic copies of a customer’s inventory lists. A tag is applied to every piece of equipment, and the unique ID number encoded to each tag is linked to the description of the item to which it is attached, along with its serial number. The instruments are then used as usual in the lab. Between inventory visits by Agilent, the lab informs the company of any inventory changes, such as the disposal of any instrument, so that the firm can update the inventory list on its software accordingly.

Periodically, Agilent staff members visit the lab and walk through the facility while carrying RFID readers (typically, those made by Motorola Solutions’ RFID division, now owned by Zebra Technologies). The readers capture the tag IDs and synchronize that data with the CrossLab inventory database. Agilent then provides an updated inventory list to its customer. The customer can use the inventory information to manage existing service agreements for equipment that requires servicing, Suzuki says.

The Agilent software resides on a lab’s own server, instead of being hosted in the cloud. “Customers prefer to keep this type of information within their firewall,” Suzuki explains, adding that “the standard service offering provides for local storage of the customer’s inventory information.”

Agilent’s customers (which Suzuki declines to name) use the CrossLab inventory service for a variety of purposes, he says. These include labor savings, financial and tax reporting, capital expenditure planning (such as determining if additional equipment is needed), and facilitating FDA regulatory compliance.

According to Suzuki, Agilent intends to make some enhancements to a second version of the CrossLab solution during the coming year, “based on early experience and customer suggestions.” However, he does not specify what those changes might be.