Japanese Hospitals, Stores Deploy RFID Smart Shelves

Teijin's 2D communication sheets provide a real-time view into when products are stocked on shelves on which the sheets are mounted, and when they are removed.
Published: December 6, 2019

Hospitals and stores in Japan have been rolling out an RFID-enabled shelf system that provides real-time data regarding when products are stocked on or removed from shelves. Recently, Osaka’s Kitano Hospital has launched the passive UHF RFID system for the processing and distribution of medical supplies. They system enables hospitals to track when catheters are stored in its cabinets, as well as when they are removed, require replenishment or are set to expire. The solution, known as Recopick, is provided by Japanese chemical, pharmaceutical and information technology company Teijin, which is currently only selling the solution in Japan.

A department store, which has asked to remain unnamed, is among the latest retailers to deploy the solution. The system consists of passive UHF RFID tags attached to display shoes in the store’s shoe department, as well as smart shelves and a software platform to identify every time a shoe is removed from the shelf—and when it is not returned.

Teijin’s Natsuki Aramoto

Teijin’s technology consists of what it calls 2D communication sheets, with built-in RF antennas, that confine and transmit electromagnetic waves, according to Natsuki Aramoto, Teijin’s project manager for smart sensing business development. The system was developed by Teijin using 2-D communication technology from Cell Croll Co. Ltd, a venture launched from the Tokyo Institute of Technology‘s Shinoda Laboratory. The 2D communication sheets can be applied not only to shelves, but also to walls and floors, and thereby enable users to track the movements of tagged items within close proximity to a surface.

Each antenna sheet connects to a multiport RFID reader and writer, and a PC via a cable. The sheet measures 900 to 1,800 millimeters (35 to 70 inches) in length, 100 millimeters (3.9 inches) in width and 3 millimeters (0.1 inch) in thickness. Typically, the sheet is laid directly over the shelf, and products are then placed on the sheet in the same way they would be with a plain shelf. The solution has been most commonly adopted in four sectors: health care, retail, libraries and manufacturing. The sheets are designed to be waterproof.

In stores, the system can detect which goods are on shelves in real time, for the purpose of store management. For instance, by tracking products such as display shoes, a department store can better ensure products are on display for shoppers, and also capture analytic data about the popularity of specific shoes. When a tagged shoe is placed on a shelf, its tag ID number is captured by the antenna, and the reader forwards that data to the server via a cabled connection.

Teijin’s software links that ID number with the product’s Japanese Article Numbering (JAN) code and forwards the item-tracking data to a retailer’s inventory-management software. When a shoe or some other tagged product is lifted 5 centimeters (2 inches) or more above the shelf, the system will no longer read the tag ID and will update that item’s status in the software as having been removed. “It can be used at convenience stores and drugstores” as well, Aramoto says. The technology can help store associates to manage products efficiently—for example, quickly restocking fast-moving items.

With analytics, the system provides another level of data that can help retailers understand the success (or lack thereof) of their displays. Since the technology identifies when an item is picked up and is then returned to the shelf, a retailer can gain insight into how often shoppers look at specific products. That data can be compared against sales rates to determine whether particular products might need to be displayed elsewhere, ensuring that goods which interest customers are located where they can be easily found.

By using the technology, Aramoto says, retailers can boost sales by ensuring that products are on display at all times. The smart shelving has been piloted by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a Japanese research and development organization, at convenience store Lawson and drug stores Tsuruha Drug and Cocokarafine, in order to better track which goods are removed from shelves.

In health care, Aramoto says, Kitano Hospital is utilizing the shelves to identify when medical equipment and supplies are used, as well as when cabinets need to be re-supplied. In addition, Toranomon Hospital is employing the technology to reduce congestion in the movement of patients through health examinations. Patient files are placed on the designated Recopick shelf, which the unique ID of the file folder, which is linked to the patient ID. That individual’s ID number and status in the queue are then displayed on a monitor, while the software tracks patient flow and ensures that each person is processed according to the time at which he or she arrived in each department. The solution has also been used by St. Luke’s International Hospital, in Tokyo (see Tokyo Hospital Tracks Equipment via RFID-Enabled Shelving).

Additionally, the solution is being deployed at several libraries. Chiba University Library tracks the status of its materials by lining its shelving with the Recopick technology. Management can view which materials are being checked out and thus understand what items are most frequently borrowed. And Chuo City Library is employing the system to track reserved books. The library’s reserved shelves utilize the Recopick RFID sheets, which detect which items tagged items are placed on the shelves and are, therefore, on reserve. Once an item is removed as a patron comes to the library to retrieve it, the system updates that item’s status as checked out. By enabling this self-checkout process, the library frees up its staff members for other tasks.

Finally, for manufacturing, the shelving is being used to track confidential documents, assets and products. This, according to the company, provides a real-time view into what is on a specific shelf and when it is removed.