Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Sense and respond

Sense and respond

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) isn't ready yet for tracking documents - but it will be soon, say its proponents.

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Key fobs that beep when you clap at them never fulfilled their ambition to be a must-have technology, but they did illustrate a simple maxim: an object that wants to be found is a lot easier to locate than one that does not. While it can be comparatively easy to track paper documents using barcodes and magnetic strip technologies, it can be very hard to retrieve them if they are misplaced or misfiled.

That is why Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology looks extremely interesting to organisations that need to track and store important documents.

Just like novelty key fobs, when someone looks for a document bearing an RFID tag and calls out to it using a radio wave, the tag answers back to let them know where it, and the document, is. What is more, it can tell them what the document is.

The technology has many potential applications in documents and records management. In addition to the same benefits that older file-tracking systems such as bar codes and magnetic strips provide, RFID tags are more durable, can store more information and can be scanned en masse, while its predecessors must be scanned individually.

Bruce Hudson, an analyst at IT market research company Meta Group, argues that RFID technology has a further advantage. “[RFID tags] identify an object without needing a 'line of sight' to the tag, whereas barcodes and magnetic strips must be aligned properly for a scanner to read them,” he points out. RFID tags require no specific orientation in order to be read and so can be located inside a box and still respond to the scanner. Equally, if an individual document to which an RFID tag is attached is hidden within the organisation's document stores, someone equipped with a mobile scanner can locate it.

“The main problems to be solved are around tracking, tracing and security,” says Peter Jones, head of Mu Solutions at Hitachi, the division responsible for the company's RFID-based 'Mu' tracking system. “An RFID technology that provides the ability to read multiple tags could, for example, be used to scan a tagged legal case file, scan all of the tagged documents inside the file and then check the status of the file against a computer record to ensure that all required documents are present within the file.”

In document tracking, a tag embedded within a document can be used to track it as it moves around an organisation and its various sites; 'smart' shelves in archival warehouses can link with automatic retrieval systems to provide location updates on documents; and special document storage cabinets can register every time a document is removed or inserted into the cabinet and even be surveyed remotely to check which documents are present.

With so many factors in RFID's favour, it is unsurprising that while analysts put worldwide RFID sales at around $700 million in 2000, they project sales in 2005 will be $2.6 billion.

But RFID technology is not new. It was first patented in 1976; Texas Instruments introduced the world's first commercial RFID tracking system in 1991; and in the past few years, several records management systems based on RFID technology or that use it in conjunction with other tracking technologies, including Thax Software's Findentity, Infolinx's Infolinx SE and FileTrail's FileTrail software.

Yet very few companies are using RFID tags to track or find their documents: Ian Keers, managing director of Cavetab - the former UK distributor of Findentity and the exclusive UK distributor of FileTrail - admits that there is not a single UK installation of Findentity or Filetrail that uses RFID tags for tracking instead of barcodes. If RFID is so beneficial, why isn't anyone using it?

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