RFID Brings Order to a Chaotic Office

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Florida State University is the first educational institution to adopt 3M's RFID Tracking System—and recoup its investment in less than a year.

The Offices of Sponsored Research Services and Sponsored Research Accounting Services at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee administers more than $182 million in research grants for some 1,200 projects each year. On any given day, there are roughly 3,500 project files in the office, to which more than 40 employees have routine access.

Until recently, the system for keeping track of all these files was inefficient, with employees often spending hours apiece searching for missing files. An employee who wanted a particular file would write the file number on an "out card," sign the card and put it on the shelf in the file's place. Once checked out, a file might change hands several times and be off the shelf for months. Typically, someone other than the person who checked it out would return it to a central inbox. Student workers would then return the file to its shelf and remove the out card.

Faced with chaos, Hefren turned to RFID to organize FSU's immense filing system.

Given this system, it's no surprise files were often lost. When that happened, Judy Hefren, FSU's assistant director of Sponsored Research Accounting Services, would send an e-mail to the person who originally checked out the file. That e-mail would often be forwarded to someone else who'd borrowed the file, then forwarded again and again to other employees. "There were e-mails flying all over the place," says Hefren. Sometimes the file turned up, but often it remained missing and Hefren or someone on her team would have to make a duplicate file.

A missing file didn't just disrupt work. Many grants the university administers for graduate students need to be closely documented because they come from federal and state agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. "There are compliance guidelines for federal grants to which we need to comply," says Hefren. "If a federal officer came in and looked for a file and we couldn't find it, there would be hell to pay."

Soon after Hefren joined the Sponsored Research Accounting Services team in 2005, she knew a new system for keeping track of files was needed, but her co-workers assumed other systems would cause too much disruption, or be too expensive. "When I started, people told me, 'Judy, this is just the way it is. You're going to have to accept it.'"

Hefren did not accept it. Instead, she did an online search for the term "file management" and found a link to 3M's file-tracking system, which uses passive RFID tags to track and inventory files. This sounded like the perfect solution to Hefren—it was "reasonably priced, and from a company everyone knew"—so she didn't consider any other technologies that her search unearthed. In early 2005, a 3M representative gave Hefren and her staff a demonstration of the system, and by May the system was deployed.

System Components

Florida State University is the first educational institution to adopt 3M's RFID Tracking System, which is most widely deployed in law firms to track legal files. The system was developed using much of the same hardware and intellectual property found in 3M's RFID-based Library Systems division, which provides automated book check-in/check-out and anti-theft solutions.

The RFID Tracking System is comprised of RFID smart labels, two software components and a fixed-position and mobile interrogator. The RFID smart labels are converted by 3M and contain high-frequency (13.56 MHz) ISO-15693-compliant inlays from Texas Instruments containing 2048 bits of user memory. Each label comes with a warrantee lasting the life of the file to which it is attached.

3M's RFID Tracking System utilizes a number of components, two of which are shown above.

The Tracking Pad Monitor is a fixed-position interrogator with an antenna roughly the size of a mouse pad, which can sit on a desktop or be mounted to a wall. The antenna links to the interrogator, which connects through a serial cable to a computer running the System Manager software. The device has a read range of up to 10 inches and can read each tag attached to a stack of file folders placed on top of the antenna pad. This fixed interrogator has two main uses: It encodes a unique ID—which, for the FSU grant system, is a 6-digit code—to each RFID smart label after it's applied to a new file folder, and it also reads existing file folders, either for inventory or for checking files in or out.

The handheld interrogator has an antenna that juts up vertically from the handle, making it easy to wave the antenna horizontally along a shelf of tagged files to read attached tags. The handheld interrogator must be placed 4 to 6 inches from each tagged file to read its smart label.

The System Manager software programs the tags, sets up groupings of files based on configurable fields, establishes zones within a facility to which the files are assigned and performs other infrastructure tasks. The System Manager also controls the RFID interrogators. The File Locator software, used for taking inventory of the tagged files, includes a database search tool for finding specific files. It can search for files based on up to 10 different search criteria fields, such as the name of a grant's principal investor or the zone within the office to which the file is assigned.

The System Manager software collects the tag data and sends it to the File Locator software, which generates an inventory report once all shelves have been scanned. It also generates a list of shelved files that were neither read nor marked as checked out. This list is then uploaded to the handheld interrogator, which reads tagged files in the inbox that have been checked back in but not yet shelved. If files are still unaccounted for once this is done, staff can use the handheld interrogator to scan other areas where tagged files might be located—for example, staff members' desks.

Take Off

It took two and a half days to get the system up and running. On the first day, 3M field technicians installed the hardware and software. The rest of the time was devoted to training Hefren and her team to use it. Within a week or so, Hefren says her staff had tagged and registered all the files in the office.

"We had to go to everyone's office and collect all the files that were checked out," Hefren recalls. "We'd encode the label with the file's 6-digit ID." If there was more than one file for a project, a letter was added to the ID for each subsequent file—for example, 123456-A and 123456-B.

Above: An assistant keys in an ID code for a new file, then applies an RFID label to the file folder for use in tracking when employees check the file out. Below: To check a file back in, an employee brings it to the appropriate filing area and presents it to a reader so the software can check the file back into the system.

3M established a link between the Oracle PeopleSoft accounting software that Hefren's office uses to manage the collection and distribution of each grant and the System Manager software. Every day, as the office processes newly approved grants, PeopleSoft creates a new record to manage each grant.

At the end of each day, Hefren's staff utilizes the System Manager software to run a query that pulls all new PeopleSoft grant record IDs into a single Access database. An administrative assistant then gathers all paperwork linked to each new grant, including the original proposal, and puts it into a file folder with a unique, pre-printed 6-digit ID number. This same 6-digit ID is encoded to the tag. In the System Manager software, the assistant keys in the ID code and associates it in the database with the grant's ID, then applies an RFID label to the file folder, places it on the interrogator antenna pad and encodes the ID to the label.

System Manager also contains a database of staff members allowed to check out files. Each employee is assigned an RFID ID card, so instead of signing an out card to check out a file, that employee must present the card to an interrogator mounted at the entrance of one of two file rooms. As the tagged files to be checked out are presented to the interrogator, the system marks the file 'checked out' and associates it with the person who took it. The employees have System Manager on their desktop computers and can use it to transfer possession of files from one employee to another without having to check the file back in first.

When the time comes to check the file back in, the employee simply brings it back to the appropriate filing area and presents it to the interrogator, which reads the tag and sends the data to the tracking software. The software checks the file back into the system, and the employee places the file in an in-box in the filing area. Student workers later re-shelve the files.

One member of Hefren's team performs a weekly inventory of the filing areas, using the handheld interrogator to read the shelved files. Afterward, File Locator aggregates the data from the handheld interrogator, generating a list of files checked in but not scanned during inventory. These files might actually be in the right place but could have been missed during the first reading if they were thin and tightly packed on the shelf. They may also have been misplaced.

This list of IDs is saved on the handheld, and the person performing the inventory count uses that handheld to scan the areas on the shelf where particular files should be—in case the tag was not read on the first pass—or to scan the re-shelving areas or in other places where non-checked-out files are likely to have been placed. If it finds an ID from the "lost list," the interrogator alerts the user through an audible indicator. The handheld also compares the order of the tagged files on the shelf with that found in the database. If it senses that any files are in the wrong place on the shelf, it alerts the user.

A staff member performs a weekly inventory of the filing areas, using the handheld interrogator to read the shelved files.

In addition, Hefren's team uses the File Locator software to identify completed projects ready for archiving. They then run a system query based on the project's end date, pull the files for completed projects, complete the final bookkeeping work and put the files in the archive, making room on the file shelves for incoming files.


Before deploying the 3M file-tracking system, each employee in Hefren's office spent an average of two and a half hours each week searching for files. Today, no one spends any measurable time file-hunting—one student worker spends part of a day each week performing an inventory of the entire office, and that's it. Based on this improvement, Hefren has performed a cost analysis showing that the department will recoup its $25,000 investment in the RFID file-tracking system in less than a year.

According to 3M, companies using a non-bar-code system to track files—such as the one FSU had been using—can spend $233,000 per year looking for files. After switching to the 3M system, they can reduce this total to $145,000—a 62 percent improvement. "There's also an ROI in morale and frustration savings," says Dave Sayers, marketing development supervisor for 3M Security Systems Division. It's not just about people wasting less time searching for files, he says. "There is a sense of 'Wow, how did we live without this?'"

Perhaps the most telling proof of the success of the RFID system at the Offices of Sponsored Research Services and Sponsored Research Accounting Services is the visible change in the attitude of some of Hefren's coworkers. "The biggest naysayers are now the biggest supporters of the new system," she says, partly because they find it easy to use and effective—but most importantly, because it allows them to spend less time searching for lost files.