Self-registering, self-managing records, a reality or just a pipe-dream? Chapter 3

by Frank 31. October 2011 14:00

Records are evidence of any business transaction and as such include all types of documents including paper, electronic and email. To meet any records management standard or compliance standard you must be capturing and managing records of all types. If you are not, then your practises are seriously deficient and I predict that at some time in the foreseeable future you will be discussing these same deficiencies with a judge or government bureaucrat. I can also predict that you will not enjoy the discussion or the financial consequences.

When looking at how to implement our new fully-automatic paradigm we need to apply tools and technologies appropriate to each type of ‘record’. In this chapter I will discuss the best technologies and tools to use to automate the management of paper records.

I started giving presentations on the coming paperless office in 1984 but gave up some 5 years later because it patently wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I made the point then that until government outlawed laser printers and copiers that paper usage was bound to increase, not decrease and so it has been over the intervening years. So, managing paper in all its forms (e.g., loose paper, file folders, archive boxes) is still a major challenge and a major cost for all enterprises.

The most common technology currently applied to paper is barcoding. Barcodes are usually placed on file folders, archive boxes and shelf or storage locations and then human beings point barcode readers at these same containers and locations to register and track them. It works fine when used properly and barcodes can be super labour-saving devices but it is still a very labour intensive and decidedly non-automatic process.

Barcodes are proven and reliable and in wide-use (e.g., UPC barcodes on all the products you buy in a supermarket) but there are better technologies now available.

A quick review of current and proven technologies provides us with a surprisingly short list and comprises:

  1. Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  2. Global Positioning System (GPS)
  3. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
  4. Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN)

Of the four I think that GPS and RFID are the most appropriate for paper. However at this time I have rejected GPS because of technical difficulties (e.g., finding a satellite from the basement) and cost. This leaves me with RFID as the sole choice from proven technologies for our fully-automated paper management paradigm.

RFID has progressed a long way since its inception in the 1970’s both in functionality and cost-effectiveness (RFID tags now cost just cents) and it is now an entirely appropriate technology to utilize to automate the management of paper.  The question is, “how best to utilize RFID technology?” A second question may well be, “why aren’t more organizations today already utilizing RFID technology to automate paper processing?”

Let me answer the second question first. Historically the rollout of RFID has suffered because of high costs and a lack of standards. There are industry standards for barcodes (e.g., Code3of9) but historically each RFID vendor came up with their own standards both for the tags and for the computer interface required for other systems to ‘talk’ to them.

Whereas there are still issues with RFID standards the situation today is light years better than it was say ten or even five years ago to the degree that  the lack of standards is no longer a reason not to use RFID technology.

Before answering the first question let’s talk a little about RFID technologies. I will generalise and say that there are three types of RFID tags for us to consider:

  • Passive
  • Semi-passive; and
  • Active

Passive tags are the cheapest to buy (say from 7 cents up) but have the shortest maximum reading distance, usually no more than twenty feet (six metres).  Semi-passive and Active tags are more expensive because they have more circuitry and batteries but have a far better maximum reading distance of up to one-hundred feet (thirty metres). And finally, Semi-passive tags still rely on the reader for power to transmit but Active tags can transmit under their own power.

For my fully-automatic solution I have chosen Active tags despite their higher cost because as I keep telling my customers, “computers are cheap and people time is expensive!”

Active tags provide far more options for us when trying to solve our problem so in the end they are the better choice and I believe, the most cost-effective choice because of their inherent benefits.

In the next chapter in this series I will answer the first question posed above and explain how I would best utilize Active RFID technology to fully automate the management of all paper records.

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