Case Study: Passive UHF RFID Helps Missouri Court System Get Files to Court on Time
 
17 September 2010

Tim Zimmerman

Gartner RAS Core Research Note G00205711
 

This Case Study looks at the processes for and benefits of UHF passive RFID to make sure companies always know where their business-critical assets are. Whether it's a court, HR or accounting, entire departments descend into chaos when everyone drops everything to look for a missing asset.





Overview



Clerks working for the Missouri state 11th Judicial Circuit Court pull 200 to 300 case files per day for the 12 judges who are hearing cases. At any time, orderly movement in the hallways could easily turn to immediate chaos when a file can't be found. Each instance means an instant loss of productivity as clerks in all respective departments drop what they're doing to look for missing case files. This Case Study looks at the processes for and benefits of using passive ultrahigh frequency (UHF) RFID to make sure case files get to court on time.

Key Findings
  • Each instance of a lost case file resulted in an immediate loss of two to 14 people looking for the file, which was multiplied by the number of hours required to find the file.

  • RFID antennas placed under desks allowed the application to determine whether passive, UHF-tagged files were located in an in-box or near the desk. Additionally, "read" points in hallways are used to track the movement of files throughout the facility.

Recommendations
  • Start with a clear set of goals and measurement criteria, such as reducing the number of files lost and the number of hours of lost productivity spent looking for files that were "misplaced." Remember that success does not need to imply that assets will never be misplaced.

  • Don't be seduced by the latest RFID technology hype. Understand the trade-off inherent in your data collection options by testing the usage scenario. These variables include the read distance or portals, availability of portable readers, and the size and type of the RFID tag or carrier.




What You Need to Know



Advances in receiver sensitivity and declining costs of implementation are broadening the applications used for passive UHF RFID. Applications that incorporate passive UHF RFID can provide near-real-time locations and traceability of assets as they pass predefined checkpoints. The number of new use cases for UHF RFID continues to emerge, with broad value propositions showing a maturity in the technology as it continues to provide significant productivity improvements over manual or bar coding systems in many usage scenarios.






Case Study




Introduction

The 11th Judicial Circuit Courthouse is located in St. Charles, Missouri, and seats 12 judges who address matters pertaining to criminal, civil, traffic, juvenile, probate and family issues. In a normal day, up to 90 clerks pull 200 to 300 files pertaining to court cases. The destination of the file could be any of the floors where judges are hearing cases, or countless desk locations where the file was being processed after court action.




The Challenge

The current process was a manual one, where files that were classified as "open" were placed in baskets mounted on a wall by the year of the case file. It was a manual check-in/check-out system, and when files were not delivered to the right place at the right time, the judicial system slowed to a halt until the case file was found. When this abrupt stop occurred one to three times a week, productivity took a big hit as all hands, consisting of 70 clerks, dropped everything and looked for a misplaced/lost file. In each instance, even if the file was found in the first hour, there was an immediate loss of 70 staffing hours. Rolling up the impact of misplaced files, it is easy to see the ROI for a process and technology that helps recover over 1,500 to 5,000 hours, which can be equated to one to three full-time employees, working eight hours a day, five days a week, dedicated to searching for lost files. The goal was to reduce the number of searches and the length of searches to find files with little or no user invention.




Approach

The IT team researched check-in/check-out applications like those commonly used in library systems, as well as bar coding and placing passive HF RFID tags on files for tracking purposes before a selecting UHF passive technology that utilizes a combination of portals in key hallways and portable readers. Passive technology was selected, because it allowed the asset to be deployed without having to worry about the size of active tags or battery life over the life of the asset.

Since one of the requirements was to deploy a system that required no user intervention, passive RFID provided the ability to query the tag without direct presentation of the tag or, in this case, the bar code to the reader. The trade-off between high-frequency (13.56 megahertz [MHz]) RFID technology and UHF (900 MHz) RFID was a lower cost of UHF RFID tags and the ability to have a longer read range using UHF technology, which created a more flexible usage scenario of where the readers needed to be located. FileTrail was the records management application vendor selected for this project because of flexibility of the application to meet the business needs and FileTrail's expertise in utilizing multiple file-tracking technologies, including support for bar codes, HF and UHF RFID tag solutions, and software that automated processes specific to records management.

With 200 to 300 file pulls per day, a check-in/check-out station similar to a library system would create a bottleneck in the file movement process. Files are either open or closed in the judicial process, depending on the two separate locations that determine the file status. If a file is not closed and is deemed open, the application tracks the movement of the file throughout the building. In order to assist with tracking files, every desk location was covered by an RFID antenna so that the application knows whether files are located in an in-box on someone's desk, or on the floor next to the desk; this information quickly narrows the search for the file deemed as misplaced. Even if a file is not found at a specific location, clerks are able to follow the trail of the file as the tag is read and time stamped through different locations of the building. As the file moves throughout the building, portal readers in key locations passively track it in real time. Four antennas per portal ensure that the orientation of the file is not a problem as it is being transported. If a file does not make it to its destination in a timely manner, the search is on.

The change from the previous methodology is that everyone does not need to drop everything; instead, a couple of clerks are able to grab the portable readers, which provide audible feedback when they read the tag from the missing file. After a quick check of where the file was last seen or read by a reader, they have narrowed the parameters for the initial search. The RFID solution was initially deployed in a pilot for one year on one floor of the court building. During the pilot, court clerks experienced a reduction of lost files, and the pilot was expanded from the initial floor installed in 2006 to all floors, and was completed in 2009.




Results

The clerks were excited to eliminate the confusion of finding files, and the number of lost files was reduced from one to three times a week to once a month. While there were significant productivity gains, the system did experience an occasional tag or reader failure that needed to be addressed. The positive outcome of the project has the team expanding the number of read points to further narrow the search matrix, and more quickly find any misplaced files.




Critical Success Factors
  • The IT organization for the Missouri Judicial 11th Circuit Court had clear and realistic goals of what it was looking to accomplish using the passive UHF RFID solution.

  • The IT organization defined its success criteria and looked at several different technologies to provide the solution, including the existing manual process, bar coding and passive HF RFID technology, before deciding on passive UHF. Issues such as reader read distance, which provided the location data of the files, as well as the availability of the portable handheld reader, which allowed files to be found quicker, were part of the criteria.

  • The team understood that the flexibility of the application was as important as the data collection technology. The application was molded to the business process to maximize results.




Lessons Learned
  • Give the affected team members (clerks, in this case) time to understand the benefits (especially if the solution is replacing a manual process). Being part of the process change and decision-making process increases acceptance and the long-term benefits of being able to track files in near real time within the building.

  • Enterprises must understand the trade-off of data collection technologies, including the different frequencies, architectures and capabilities of RFID, in order to deploy the right "technology" for a successful solution.


© 2010 Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Gartner is a registered trademark of Gartner, Inc. or its affiliates. Reproduction and distribution of this publication in any form without prior written permission is forbidden. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information. Although Gartner's research may discuss legal issues related to the information technology business, Gartner does not provide legal advice or services and its research should not be construed or used as such. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof. The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.