RFID Outclasses Manual Furniture Inventory System at USC

The University of Southern California (USC) housing office knew its housing facilities, on and off campus, had upwards of 60,000 pieces of furniture and appliances. But until the student housing office deployed a radio frequency identification system, tracking which items were at what locations, as well as which were broken, missing or due for replacement, required exhaustive manual inventories. Those inventory counts, typically conducted during summers, required the hiring of temporary workers and many hours of labor to catalog what was where.

Thanks to an RFID system, however, the school now knows where its inventory is located, and has been able to dispel some myths as well, says Leo R. Boese, the special projects manager of USC’s housing office. One prominent myth claimed that furniture was frequently moving and was often not where it was supposed to be. By using handheld CSL RFID readers, employees were able to determine that furniture did not move as often as the school had thought, and that when it did move, it was still in the vicinity of its intended location. That, along with other findings, has made it easier for the school to order new furniture when necessary, as well as identify which items need repair. What’s more, it can now avoid over-ordering due to furniture ending up missing.

USC is a private research university in Los Angeles. It has approximately 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled, many of whom live in dorms, suites and apartments. All facilities are furnished with chairs, desks and beds, while the apartments also include refrigerators, and other appliances and furniture. Until recently, the housing office staff went through each room or unit once a year or semester, counting and identifying every piece of furniture, and writing down what was missing or required repair or maintenance. Many items seemed to be missing.

In 2011, the college began working with Convergence Systems Ltd. (CSL) CS101 handheld readers to manage inventory and RFID read data.

In summer 2012, USC employed six temporary workers to apply RFID tags to every asset within all of the housing units, and to input data about those items into the NoxCore software. By the time they were finished, Boese says, they had identified 63,943 assets, ranging from chairs and couches to mattresses, refrigerators and bed frames. In addition, each object was assigned a room or unit number in the software.

Beginning in fall 2012, the school began equipping its housing health and safety inspectors with CS101 readers. The inspectors enter each housing unit or room once a semester (typically while students are on holiday) and examine the working conditions of smoke detectors, appliances and electrical plugs, identifying any potential safety issues. Now, they also use the RFID reader to capture asset inventory information. The handheld can read up to 90 tags per second at a range of 20 feet.

Upon entering each dwelling, an inspector uses the handheld to access the room or unit number from a drop-down menu in the RFID software, available to the reader via a Wi-Fi connection. He or she then reads all tags within the room and compares the results with a list of furniture expected for that location. Unexpected or missing items can be flagged within the software so employees can address those issues at a later date. If the inspector moves an item to a different room, its status can be updated to indicate its new location. Assets in need of maintenance or replacement can also be flagged.

The department expects to achieve a three-year return on its investment, Boese reports, based on the reduced labor time required to conduct inventory checks, as well as a reduction in the ordering of replacement items. “Our biggest savings is to be able to project the life of furniture,” he states, ensuring that items are not replaced too soon, or not soon enough.

RFID is most advantageous for sites that have moving assets, Boese says, whereas the technology’s use may not be as critical for items that never move, such as refrigerators. However, he notes, he has shared the deployment’s results with other school departments. The public safety office is now considering employing RFID to monitor equipment used in its vehicles. In addition, he says, the housing office intends to open a warehouse next year for furniture and other materials that have been ordered, or that are being repaired, and expects the RFID technology to be useful in tracking what is in the warehouse at any given time, and what its status is (such as ready to be installed in a student apartment or dorm room).


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