Libraries stack up on RFID

Markham, Ont. – There are 37 million books moved within the Toronto Public Library system each year and librarians are beginning to look to RFID tags to help them manage the volume.

The Toronto library implemented a pilot project to place radio frequency identification tags on books in two of its libraries and set up self-checkout kiosks. Currently, about 70 to 80 per cent of users take advantage of the self checkout capability, said Patricia Eastman of the Toronto Public Library speaking at the 2006 Canadian RFID Conference held earlier this month.

This means that staff are handling less material, she said. The RFID tags won’t lead to job losses, she added, but it has freed them up to do other work.

Moe Hosseini-Ara, manager of the Markham Village Library, agrees.

Between 2001 and 2005, Markham expanded from five libraries to six and the population base it serves has increased from 208,615 to 268,835. A pilot RFID project has helped the library system deal with the increasing load by freeing up staff, said Hosseini-Ara, who also spoke at the conference workshop on multiple applications for RFID.

Though many in various industries are waiting for price tags on RFID tags to come down, the Toronto public library decided to go ahead with its project, Eastman said, otherwise it would always be waiting. Besides, she said, libraries need tags that can last for the lifetime of an item, so it will never be able to use five cent tags on its books, though it’s a possibility for items with a shorter shelf life.

“The book tags have been very effective and reliable,” she said.

The only problems the library had was with its CD and DVD tags, she said. Because the metal surface, there was some interference and the tags could also be easily peeled off. As a result, the library decided to use booster tags. Though the tags can potentially be peeled off books as well, for the most part, this isn’t a concern. The CD and DVD items, however seem to be more desirable item, she said.

Libraries aren’t the only ones looking into RFID technology.

The Ministry of Finance for Ontario – Financial Services Commission’s Motor Vehicle Accident Claims Fund (MVACF) has implemented an RFID File Tracking System (FTS).

The ministry has some 65,000 paper files on cases, about 6,500 of which are currently at its offices. Under the old chit file tracking system, files would easily get misplaced or misfiled and clerks would sometimes spend a day-and-a-half looking for them, said the ministry’s John Avgeris who presented a video on the ministry’s project at the conference. Now, staff can find where a file is with the press of a button.

“We put it in a couple of years ago and we’re still happy with it,” Avgeris said.

The department is currently moving offices and is putting the FTS to a different use, he said.

The tags weren’t as expensive to implement as the software used to in conjunction with them, he said.

“Information is a very high-value asset,” Avgeris said.

And it is asset management where RFID’s effectiveness can be most easily established, said Christian Stephan, a consultant who also spoke at the conference.

“Asset control is probably one of the best uses of RFID tags,” he said.

Though it may seem odd, fixed assets may not always be fixed in a physical sense, he said. Companies lose track of the oddest things and one mining company he knows lost track of a Caterpillar, which is a type of bulldozer.

“ROI may not be the main reason to use RFID,” he said. Risk avoidance and control of assets are also good reasons to consider the technology. It can help tracking the status of assets, especially when they go outside the office.

However, companies might do well to start smaller and confine initial RFID projects to assets that remain in-house.

It can be easy to build a business case for it, he said. Companies should consider whether the value of the assets being tracked is more than the value of the tags. And while bar codes are less expensive, they can’t hold as much information and must be read in line of sight on a one-to-one basis.

This makes it possible, for example, to reduce inventory time from hours to a matter of moments by switching to RFID.

The tags are also more durable, he said.

One company he knows uses RFID tags to keep track of its PCs. It had been using bar codes before and its new scanners could read both technology in order to ease the transition.

The company can now more easily track where a computer is and what assets each department has. This has allowed it to better calculate the value of its assets for insurance purposes as well as reduce loss and theft.

However, RFID tags aren’t implemented in isolation, he said. It’s a technology that’s applied to a process and the software used to track assets is even more important than the tags themselves.

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