RFID comes of age
Industry explodes as radio tags provide means to track just about anything
02:36 PM CDT on Sunday, July 2, 2006
New York Times News Service
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- When the fifth digital thermometer went missing last fall
from the Mercy Hospital emergency department, the fed-up nurses decided that
extraordinary measures were necessary to prevent any more of the $200
instruments from getting away.
Determined to catch the thief, they glued radio frequency identification devices that
normally would go on patient bracelets to the rest of their thermometers. It wasn't
long before the culprit was caught.
VeriScan uses bar codes and RFID tag readers to track medication
administered by nurses.
"We actually caught somebody taking a thermometer," said Emergency Services
director Deb Macy, with a chuckle. "It was very creative, but it works," she said.
Inspired by the nurses' ingenuity, Macy asked the RFID maker, RF Technologies in
Brookfield, Wis., to design something a bit more sophisticated. Soon an equipment-
tracking device was born.
The tracking-chip breakthrough at Mercy might have been a small event, but it
illustrates a larger phenomenon. In the past five years, the radio identification tag
industry has exploded into a $2 billion business capable of allowing anything --
supplies, factory parts, books, files, pharmaceuticals, pets and even people -- to be
tracked, provided they are within range of a scanner.
The technology, which uses radio waves, microchips, antennas and handheld or
stationary scanners, made its first big inroads into the economy two years ago when
some stores began using it to track arriving inventory shipments.
Last year the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, insisted that its largest suppliers
begin using RFID labels on every box of merchandise shipped. Other retailers are
joining in, and combined, they are changing the way the industry warehouses goods
and tracks retail items.
That in turn has given big revenue boosts to emerging market leaders such as RF
Technologies, 3M Co. -- including its Eden Prairie subsidiary High Jump Software --
and firms such as VeriChip, Intermec and Texas Instruments. All of them are
working feverishly to find new applications for their burgeoning technology.
"This is a huge growth area. Over the last two years, it has become a sexy topic with
lots and lots of interest from around the world, not just in the United States," said
Bob Anderson, director of 3M's newly created track and trace solutions unit.
3M CEO George Buckley recently told shareholders that RFID "is perhaps the largest
single growth opportunity" that 3M possesses today. Buckley likened the potential to
a spider web, with each new use leading to other potential uses.
"You can have applications in tracking pets, children, cars or criminals. This is a
wonderful growth area," Buckley said.
By the end of the decade, manufacturers expect industry revenue to hit $10 billion to
Unlike bar codes that require each product to be held to a scanner, RFID scanners
can read through cardboard. Wave a scanning wand within inches of a case of goods
and it can quickly read every item on a pallet, easily locating lost or misshelved
cases. Forklift drivers passing stationary antennas in the warehouse instantly snag
information about where to park their pallets, what's inside each box, shipping dates
RFID systems typically cost $25,000 to $200,000, depending on the number of items
tracked. For some companies, that's a bargain; RFID solves costly problems and
often eliminates hours wasted searching for documents, equipment and other items.
But the technology is moving beyond the warehouse: Some medical facilities are
using it to keep track of people.
Florida-based Applied Digital in late 2004 began marketing the VeriChip, the only
FDA-approved RFID chip for humans. The chips are being used mostly in dementia
patients who can't communicate well when they get lost or land in the emergency
About 2,000 people overseas and 100 U.S. patients have voluntarily submitted to
having a VeriChip imbedded under the skin in the back of their arms. About 100 U.S.
hospitals have the RFID reader needed to scan the $200 chips, read their 16-digit
codes and access VeriChip's computer system, which can identify the patient. The
code also lets participating hospitals tap into VeriChip's secure database to access
records on illnesses, allergies, and medicines.
VeriChip spokeswoman Nicole Philbin said the implantable chips are used only with
the permission of patients or their guardians. In contrast, mental patients inside
Mercy Hospital are required to be monitored by the state and are fitted with an
unremovable RFID bracelet.
It took some persuasion, but Dr. Jonathan Musher is now a fan of the technology.
The Maryland family practitioner and geriatric specialist imbedded one of the devices
in a patient last year and since has placed the chip in about two dozen patients.
The technology is similar to the RFID chips that veterinarians have been implanting
in pets since the late 1990s. Musher said it's a practical step for some elderly people
and heart patients who can't speak for themselves in emergencies.
"It makes sense. It's a good idea," he said.
Four months ago, he implanted one of the grain-sized chips into a 79-year-old
Alzheimer's patient and "the daughter felt like a burden was lifted because this was a
little piece of safety for her mother," Musher said. "The mother has some trouble
with memory and sometimes she has trouble saying who she is. And yet, she does
have heart disease, is at risk for congestive heart failure and has gone into the ER a
couple of times."
"The device is passive, meaning it doesn't emit a signal and so a person can't be
tracked," he said.
Weeks ago, Musher said, an 82-year-old man showed up in his office asking for the
chip because he lived alone and suffered heart problems.
RF Technologies introduced its RFID bracelets to nursing homes in 1987. Today,
10,000 nursing homes use its "active" or signal-emitting RFID bracelets to monitor
bedridden residents in an effort to prevent falls. Mercy Hospital and about 800 other
hospitals now also use them to track newborns, moms and ER patients. Mercy first
began using the patient bracelets in 2004.
Its sister facility, Unity Hospital in Fridley, plans to adopt RFID systems once
remodeling work begins on the facility two years from now, Macy said. Meanwhile,
Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee is testing RF's latest product, a system that tracks
down wayward wheelchairs, IV pumps and respirator monitors.
"Our Seeker runs off a handheld PDA," said Alan Murphy, the RF vice president who
just hired several new salespeople for the growing 120-person firm. Each wheelchair,
IV pole and other item of mobile equipment gets an RFID transducer that emits a
specific radio wave that can be tracked by a nurse's PDA.
"So you will know how close you are to [the sought item] by the flashing bar on the
PDA. It will beep and flash from 300 yards away," Murphy said.
3M introduced its RFID tracking systems for library books in 1999. Since then it
bought High Jump Software and expanded the technology to warehouses and law
Law firms in Boston, New York, California and elsewhere are using 3M's RFID "file
tracker system" daily.
"The excited 'beep, beep, beep' signals that the misplaced files have been found,"
said Marc Ireland, a paralegal with the Mueting, Raasch & Gebhardt law firm, while
passing his RFID wand past 2-foot stacks of legal records.
The north Minneapolis patent law firm was a test site for 3M's system in 2003 and
2004. Previously, employees spent too much time searching for files. Client files
containing critical patent data were found just 43 percent of the time on the first try,
Ireland said. Now, the figure is 97 percent.
"It's easy. Before, on any given day, you would need to spend time looking," he said.
To demonstrate, Ireland quickly tapped a file on the special 3M mouse pad that sits
on his desk. Instantly the file number, client name and Ireland's name appeared on
his computer screen and in the office system, alerting others that he had the file.
Every paralegal has a similar pad, as does the central file room. And every worker
has an RFID employee ID tag for easy pad swiping.
3M has adapted its library and law-firm technology into "RFID marker balls." The
balls, with tiny antennas and micro-chips, give new meaning to the words "pay dirt"
because the color-coded RFID balls are buried next to pipes or cables, allowing utility
workers to find specific wires and pipes without reaching for a shovel.
Instead, they point their handheld RFID reader at the ground and watch the cable
number pop up on the screen.
Aiming his reader at a large dirt-filled pot in his lab, 3M scientist Sam Shiffman
quickly detected the radio waves from two buried marker balls inside.
"It's showing that one is a sewer water pipe and the other is electrical," he said.
An additional click revealed more data: "The power line is a foot and 11 inches below
the soil and here's the ID number that has been assigned," Shiffman said. "This can
be interfaced with a GPS system" that maps pipe and cable locations worldwide.
3M is piloting several new RFID programs. One locates defective cathode equipment
in Chilean copper mines. Another finds soldiers' medical records. Still another detects
missing and expired airplane life vests without requiring flight attendants to rifle
through each seat.
The company also is quietly inserting the technology inside some countries'
passports, including those of Belize, Jamaica and Bermuda. 3M's RFID-equipped
passports, which were launched in May, contain undetectable microchips that hold
electronic data and photos of the passport holder. Special RFID readers let customs
agents verify the identity of travelers by matching the information on the paper
document to the data on the chip.
"It adds another layer of security to existing systems," Anderson said as he stood
next to an RFID passport system in a 3M lab. "We are not happy with just what we
have developed already."