(for publication in the Nov/Dec 2002 "Information Mgt. Journal")
(for publication in the Nov/Dec 2002 “Information Mgt. Journal”)
THE NEXT GENERATION IN
RADIO FREQUENCY ID (RFID)
By Michael J. Faber, CRM
Ready or not, RFID is coming. We have been hearing about it for
several years. Not many of us in the Records Management
profession have seen it up close and personal yet, but it IS coming.
Tiny antennas and transmitters, imbedded in barcode labels which
can "talk" to a computer in a central filing area. When queried and
energized by an electronic signal, they silently reply "Here I am!!, I
belong to XYZ Corp, and have been at this location since I was
placed here at 8:01am on September 2, 1999.……………"
Not science fiction, or "vaporware" anymore. Radio Frequency
Identification, or RFID technology, is now a reality. Like the so-called
"simple" barcode technology of the early 1970s, it is not very well
understood. Many people in the 70s were suspicious of barcode
technology and didn't feel comfortable with its capability to accurately
track the prices of the items purchased in grocery store and other
retail outlets. For years, the technology was there, but consumers did
not have the confidence in the system.
Today, RFID technology is in much the same position as basic
barcode technology was in the mid 1970s. Not very well understood,
but with an enormous potential to virtually revolutionize a number of
vertical markets, including the Records Management industry.
Before looking into today's Radio Frequency ID possibilities, let's take
a brief look back at how the standard or Universal Product Code
(UPC) barcode technology developed and was introduced to the
market place almost 3 decades ago.
As early as the late 1940s, the basic concept of barcode 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 which could capture information
automatically. Although the system showed promise, ink instability
and printing costs outweighed the benefits.
In the 1960s, the Sylvania Corporation developed a 10-digit barcode
system which could read barcode labels on railroad freight cars.
Although the system could accurately track the nomadic wanderings
of freight cars around the country’s rail yards, it was also a very
expensive process, and the project was dropped by Sylvania.
Towards the end of the 60s, the convergence of sophisticated
integrated circuits and laser technology, finally made relatively low-
cost barcode scanning possible. The grocery store industry agreed
on the Universal Product Code or UPC label and on other barcode
standards. By late 1974, items were being test-scanned at selected
grocery stores around the country. Within 10 years, barcode
scanning was universally accepted by the grocery industry as well as
in many other businesses.
The U.S. grocery industry pioneered barcode technology, not
because they wanted to appear "high tech", but because they
understood the enormous efficiency of barcode technology and how it
could reduce costs and increase profits. The initial conversion costs
to the grocery industry were staggering. Each grocery store needed
to invest tens of thousands of dollars in the new systems, but
analysts understood that the return on investment would be very fast.
Not only did the barcode systems reduce time and increase efficiency
at the checkout point in grocery stores, it captured information about
the products and helped automate the reorder process. It also gave
analysts information which could indicate buying trends and other
The comparison between today's RFID technology and the
technology of UPC barcoding of the mid 1970s is striking. The
technology works, the systems are proven and are in place in a
number of applications. Based on the phenomenal track record of
basic barcode technology, an "interactive" system such as RFID
Technology has an incredible potential to truly revolutionize many
business applications, especially in the records and information
The Records Management profession, should take a proactive
position in the implementation of automated, state of the art
procedures such as RFID. Radio Frequency Identification systems
already have a proven track record in maximizing efficiency while
reducing costs at the same time.
RFID technology already offers a number of advantages when
compared to standard barcode based systems. Records
Management professionals using RFID now have the ability to
actually 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 would have the ability to
do complete file room inventories and audits in hours, rather than in
days or weeks.
National Office Systems (NOS), is a Washington, D.C. based
company specializing in records management solutions. New Jersey
based Checkpoint Systems Inc. has been on the forefront of RFID
technology since 1996. Working with Checkpoint developed
software, NOS has been one of the pivotal companies integrating
RFID into the records management workplace over the last 6 years.
Although records management applications are but one of a huge
number of possibilities for RFID, it certainly appears that this
technology can have an enormous impact on fileroom and record
center operations. Not only can it almost guarantee that files and
documents are accurately located when needed within a facility, it
can notify appropriate company officials when critical papers leave a
The time spent on unsuccessfully searching for documents in a large
fileroom can be staggering. The costs for those searches can be
equally significant. RFID Technology has the ability to eliminate
those costs by immediately and accurately locating all files which
have imbedded barcodes.
Sughrue, Mion, PLLC., a Washington, D.C. law firm specializing in
patent law, is a case in point. Working with National Office Systems
in early 1999, Shugrue made the decision to automate the files in
their internal record center. In November 1999, Shugrue decided to
implement Checkpoint System’s Intelligent File System (IFS).
The firm’s central file room then held approximately 12,000 files and
the number was growing. On an average day, 250 files might be
pulled or refiled. Requests were expected to be filled within two
hours. Of course, time spent searching for lost or misplaced files
RFID technology enhanced the functionality of the software by
automating file identification for circulation, allowing automated
checkout and inventory, and enhancing security. The file’s
identification number was embedded in the integrated circuit (IC) on
the RFID label. Unlike barcodes, RFID has no line-of-sight reading
requirement, so the tags can be placed inside the file folders.
Anticollision technology built into the system makes it possible to read
multiple tags at the same time. This allowed for significant
improvements in efficiency when checking files in or out of the file
Tony Donaldson, former Senior Records Manager at Shugrue, stated
that “Our work demands that we access information immediately. We
can’t afford to devote our time and resources searching through
mountains of information stored in our files just to locate specific
documents.” Donaldson went on to say that the system “has
dramatically reduced the hours of costly and inefficient time formerly
devoted to file management.”
A number of other applications have begun to take advantage of
RFID Technology. In the Library Management field, an impressive
number of institutes of higher learning and Universities have begun to
implement Radio Frequency aided systems.
One of those libraries, the Rockefeller Library in New York City has
over 500,000 hardbound volumes in its collection. By using RFID
technology developed by Checkpoint Systems, the Rockefeller
Library has instituted a system of automated checkout and return
which has all but eliminated the need for some full time employees.
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 takes note of items which are
out of sequence on the shelves. The system used at the Rockefeller
library also alarms when books pass through the entrance without
first being checked out of the system. A similar system can be
implemented in a Law Firm or other business to ensure that files are
properly checked out of the file room before being taken out of a
facility or building.
In addition to several other major law firms, other RFID clients of
NOS include the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury Department, the
Naval Research Laboratory and the D.C. Government.
One of the issues which are of concern in the RFID industry is the
cost of the label itself. When Motorola developed a new technology
in the mid-1990s called "BiStatix", 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 barcode 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 the labels
are purchased in quantity. 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 very limited in
terms of the amount of information they could store and transmit. As
the technology develops, the data storage and cost issues will
continue to improve from the user's standpoint.
In large, corporate record centers and in commercial 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 worked out, but RFID systems now in
place are ideal for working in open-shelf systems or in single depth
In the Records Management field, RFID applications are somewhat
limited at this time. In large and commercial record centers, storing 2
to 3 containers deep, RFID is not yet a viable solution. In huge file
room applications, the initial cost of the RFID labels may be
prohibitive. Most likely, technology will develop systems which can
read several boxes deep in record center applications, and also
develop less expensive RFID labels with more capability.
At this point, it appears that the most appropriate Records
Management RFID application might be in very active, open shelf
filerooms with less than 50,000 files. In this environment, the return
on investment for the system might be realized quickly, especially if
unsuccessful file searches and lost documents are a significant,
Until about a year ago, IBM was running a commercial on television
which showed a suspicious looking fellow with long hair and needing
a shave, walking through a grocery store. Wearing jeans and a
scruffy looking denim jacket, the man is glancing 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 looking like a swat-team
member. As the man walks through the second door and outside the
security guard confronts him with “Excuse me, sir”, as the viewer
expects a confrontation. The guard politely says, “You forgot your
An interesting commercial by IBM, demonstrating the capability of
RFID technology to read the items in the man’s jacket and pockets,
and directly bill the credit card in his wallet. A clever commercial
about a fascinating technology.
(Michael J. Faber is the Vice President of Paxton Record Retention,
in Springfield, Virginia, a commercial record center he helped form in
1988. He is a member of both the Northern Virginia and Washington,
D.C. Chapters of ARMA and was the Northern Va. Chapter Member
of the Year in 1991. He has had a number of records management
related articles published, and has been the guest speaker at
meetings such as the Association of Legal Administrators and the
American Society of Association Executives. Mike was recently
made an Honorary Member of the United States Military Academy
[West Point] Class of 1959 for his efforts in having the Medal of
Honor awarded to Captain Rocky Versace (USMA ’59) and for his
efforts to have the Versace Plaza and Vietnam Memorial built in
Alexandria, Va. He lives in Vienna, Virginia with his wife Sharon.)