RFID: the next tool for managing records? Records managers using radio frequency identification (RFID) would have the ability to do complete file-room inventories quickly. (Tech Trends).
* Explains the benefits of RFID technology
* Discusses how the technology can benefit RIM
Ready or not, radio frequency identification (RFID) has arrived. Although it has been discussed for several years, few in the records and information management (RIM) field have seen it in action. Neither science fiction nor "vaporware," RFID technology is now a reality and readily available. RFID, in fact, has existed long enough for a history of it to be written (www.aimglobal.org). A testimonial to both its presence and its value is a recent National Public Television documentary (31 August 2002), which may help establish RFID in the public consciousness. It is time for RIM professionals to become attuned to the possible benefits of this technology as well.
RFID is part of a new generation of information technology known as "contactless communication." Contactless communication uses RFID tags (programmable integrated circuits), readers, a host computer, and Windows-based software for a variety of applications. Several RFID system vendors have entered the market, including: 3M (www.3m.com/smartid), Infolinx Document Management (www.infolinx. com), Thoroughbred Technologies (www.tbredtech.com), a 3M partner, and Checkpoint Systems (www.checkpointsystems.com/rfid/).
There are numerous applications for this technology. The tire industry, for example, can embed RFID chips, some of which are smaller than a grain of rice, into new tires. This system can associate a tire with a specific vehicle, store a 12-character coding for a number required by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and indicate when and where the tire was manufactured. The tiny size of some tags allows for embedding in paper. This ability suggests innovative ways to track documents during the life cycle of records at the page, document, file folder, and container levels.
Here is a complete and accountable chain of custody. Anything that can be RFID tagged becomes part of an inventory control system. Tiny antennas and transmitters, embedded in bar code-type labels that "communicate" with a computer in a central filing area suggest many uses of RFID. When queried and energized by an electronic signal, these labels, in essence, reply, "Here I am. What I am attached to belongs to XYZ Corp., and I have been at this location since I was placed here at 8:01 a.m. on September 2, 1999." The central purpose of RFID technology in the RIM domain is file/document control: where is it, who has it, did it come back, and with no errors?
Advantages of RFID
Like the simple bar code technology of the early 1970s, RFID is as yet not very well understood. Many people in the '70s were initially leery of bar code technology and did not feel comfortable with its capability to accurately track and report the prices of the items purchased in grocery store and other retail outlets. For years, the technology was in place, but consumers lacked confidence in the system.
RFID technology already offers a number of advantages when compared to standard bar code-based tracking systems. RIM professionals using RFID now have the ability to actually check files out--and back in--to users with no intermediation. They also can track and monitor files and records with extreme accuracy, not only within the file room but throughout an entire facility. More importantly, records managers using RFID could complete file-room inventories in less time.
RF technology also means no more line-of-sight requirements. Today, presenters showing Power Point slides can advance slides from anywhere in the room using RF technology to avoid the line-of-sight requirement with older infrared slide-advance technology.
Although RIM applications are but one of a huge number of possibilities for RFID (e.g., finding lost children or stolen property), it appears that this technology can have an enormous impact on file rooms and record center operations. Not only can it virtually guarantee that files and documents are accurately located when needed within a facility, it can also notify appropriate staff when critical documents leave a given area. Time and money spent on unsuccessfuly searches for missing key documents in a large file room can be staggering. RFID technology has the ability to eliminate those costs by immediately and accurately locating all files with RFID labels.
Sughrue Mion, a law firm specializing in patent law, is a case in point. Sughrue made the decision to automate the management of files in its internal record center and in November 1999 implemented Checkpoint System's Intelligent File System (IFS). The firm's central file room then held approximately 12,000 files, and the number was growing rapidly. On an average day, 250 files might be pulled or refiled. Requests for files were expected to be filled within two hours. Because several attorneys and paralegals might be involved in any one case, files could be dispersed to several people at one time. Time spent searching for lost, "out," or misplaced files eroded productivity.
RFID technology enhanced the functionality of the software by automating file identification for circulation, allowing automated checkout and inventory as well as enhancing security. The file's identification number was embedded in the tiny integrated circuit (IC) on the RFID label on the file. Unlike bar codes, RFID has no line-of-sight reading requirement, so the tags can be placed inside the file folders. Anti-collision technology built into the system makes it possible to read multiple tags simultaneously. This allowed for significant improvements in efficiency when checking files in or out of the file room.
"Our work demands that we access information immediately" Tony Donaldson, former senior records manager at Sughrue, explains. "We can't afford to devote our time and resources searching through mountains of information stored in our files just to locate specific documents." He reports that the system "has dramatically reduced the hours of costly and inefficient time formerly devoted to file management."
Other applications have begun to take advantage of RFID technology. For example, an impressive number of libraries in institutes of higher education have begun to implement radio frequency-aided systems. One of those libraries is the Rockefeller University Library in New York City.
Rockefeller Library has more than 500,000 hardbound volumes in its collection. The library has instituted a system of automated checkout and return that has reduced employee head count thanks to RFID technology. More importantly, complete, accurate inventories can be performed each night. Using a hand-held, portable inventory reader, the system not only identifies missing volumes but also takes note of items that are out of sequence on the shelves. The system used at the Rockefeller Library also sounds alarms when books pass through the entrance without first being checked out of the system. A similar system can be implemented in several types of businesses to ensure that files are properly checked out of the file room before being taken out of a facility or building.
Disadvantages of RFID
An issue of concern in the RFID industry is the cost of the label itself. When Motorola developed a new technology called BiStatix in the mid-1990s, it included a tiny silicon chip no larger than a coffee ground. The chip was attached to a printed antenna and embedded into a printed bar code label. Like most new technologies, the cost for the early RFID labels was prohibitively high. In the past few years, the cost has come down when labels are purchased in large quantities. Although RFID labels were initially priced at several dollars each, they can now be purchased for a little more than a dollar each in quantity.
The original BiStatix labels from Motorola were also limited in terms of the amount of information they could store and transmit. As the technology develops, the data storage and cost issues will, like early bar code technology, improve in performance and price from the user's standpoint.
In commercial and large corporate record centers, another issue for RFID applications presents itself. To maximize space efficiency, large record centers usually store record boxes and containers two or three deep, making it difficult or impossible for scanners to penetrate to the second or third container on the shelf. Some companies are experimenting with oversized RFID antennas, which can transmit a low-level signal through other containers. Eventually, the problem will be solved, but RFID systems now in place are ideal for working in open-shelf filing systems or in single-depth record centers.
At this point, it appears that the most appropriate applications for RFID in records management may be in active, open-shelf file rooms with fewer than 50,000 files. In this environment, the return on investment for the system might be realized quickly, especially if unsuccessful file searches and expensive lost documents are a significant, ongoing problem.
Until recently, IBM was running a television commercial that showed a suspicious-looking fellow with long hair and unkempt facial hair walking through a grocery store. Wearing jeans and a scruffy-looking denim jacket, the man glances around apprehensively. As the background music gets lower and more dramatic, the man begins to stuff items from the store into his pockets and underneath his jacket. As he approaches the front door, the music peaks and the camera pans to a serious-looking security officer who resembles a swat-team member. As the man walks through the second door and outside, the security guard confronts him with "Excuse me, sir." While the viewer expects a confrontation, the guard politely says, "You forgot your receipt." This clever commercial demonstrates the capability of RFID, as a type of contactless technology, to "read" the items in the man's jacket and pockets and directly bill the credit card in his wallet.
RFID represents an opportunity for those in the RIM profession to take a proactive position in the implementation of automated state-of-the-art technologies. RFID systems already have a proven track record in maximizing efficiency while reducing costs.
An RFID History Lesson
Like bar code technology, RFID may have to overcome initial user resistance. As early as the late 1940s, the basic concept of bar code technology was being experimented with at Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Technology. Using patterns of ink, which would glow under ultraviolet light, a system was developed that could capture information automatically. Although the system showed promise, ink instability and printing costs outweighed the benefits.
In the 1960s, Sylvania developed a 10-digit barcode system that could read barcode labels on railroad freight cars. It was an expensive process, and Sylvania dropped the project. Toward the end of the '60s, the convergence of sophisticated integrated circuits and laser technology finally made relatively low-cost bar code scanning possible. The grocery store industry agreed on the universal product code (UPC) label and other bar code standards. By late 1974, items were being test-scanned at selected grocery stores around the country. Within 10 years, bar code scanning was universally accepted by the grocery industry as well as in many other businesses.
Michael J. Faber, CRM, is Vice President of Paxton Record Retention, a commercial records center in Springfield, Virginia. He has published several RIM-related articles and has presented at meetings of the Association of Legal Administrators and the American Society of Association Executives. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.