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Social Security Administration utilizes RFID

USA Today | January 7, 2005

Retirees are unlikely to see radio frequency identification tags on their Social Security checks anytime soon. But Social Security Administration officials will begin tracking orders for SSA forms and pamphlets early this year using RFID technology.

SSA officials have discovered advantages in using RFID technology to supplement and, in some areas, replace handheld bar code scanners for entering data into warehouse management systems. Unlike bar codes, which typically are scanned with handheld readers, RFID tags store information in a microchip that transmits its information automatically to an RFID reader.

Using RFID tags and readers, SSA officials expect to eliminate costly, time-consuming errors in maintaining inventory and fulfilling orders for hundreds of different SSA pamphlets and forms. "Certainly accuracy saves money," said John Spencer, director of SSA's Office of Supply and Warehouse Management. "If we don't process the order correctly, that results in another order to be placed, packed and shipped."

Along with Wal-Mart and the Defense Department, SSA's supply and warehouse office is on the cutting edge in using RFID for tracking assets and inventory, said Gary Orem, an information technology specialist at the warehouse office. Agency officials have built a portable RFID tunnel lined with antennas for reading RFID tags on containers at the shipping and receiving docks of the office's headquarters in Woodlawn, Md.

Early this year, SSA officials will expand their use of RFID by creating shipping container tags and sending them to one of the agency's largest printing vendors. "We want them to include our tag on the product," Orem said. When palettes of printed materials are read on the receiving dock, the process would automatically update SSA's warehouse information system.

The same will be true when palettes of printed materials are labeled with RFID tags for shipment to SSA offices. "As soon as the palette gets sent out to the truck, the RFID portal will read the information and automatically update that order within our warehouse system," Orem said.

Being early users of RFID has been a learning experience for SSA officials, who have had to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the technology, including its inability to scan tags placed on the backsides of metal containers or containers holding fluids.

"It's a little like Chinese cooking," meaning all the ingredients must be properly prepared beforehand, said L. Allen Bennett, president and chief executive officer of System Concepts, a company that SSA officials hired to integrate their warehouse system with the RFID technology.

Current RFID technology reads tags with a fairly high degree of accuracy. When RFID tags are read at a rate of 20 to 30 each second, SSA officials are finding that typically 36 out of 40 reads are accurate, Orem said.

RFID technology also is becoming more affordable. For example, the price of RFID tags has dropped from $2 each to about $1, and antennas are inexpensive — between $3 and $4 apiece. The main drawback, Orem said, is the absence of a finished international standard for RFID technology. But that, he said, is coming.


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