(for publication in the Nov/Dec 2002 "Information Mgt. Journal")


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(for publication in the Nov/Dec 2002 "Information Mgt. Journal")

  1. 1. (for publication in the Nov/Dec 2002 “Information Mgt. Journal”) THE NEXT GENERATION IN RECORDS MANAGEMENT: 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
  2. 2. 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 useful information. The comparison between today's RFID technology and the technology of UPC barcoding of the mid 1970s is striking. The
  3. 3. 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 management industry. 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 given area. 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
  4. 4. 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 eroded productivity. 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 room. 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
  5. 5. 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.
  6. 6. 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 record centers. 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, ongoing problem. 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 receipt”. 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.
  7. 7. (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.)