Ann All spoke with Mike Braatz, VP of marketing for PanGo Networks, a location management platform and applications provider.
All: What are some of the business benefits of combining Wi-Fi infrastructure with RFID technology?
Braatz: Let me clarify what we are talking about. There are two types of RFID, active and passive. Passive is the type of RFID made famous by Wal-Mart that is used mostly for item-level tracking in warehouses and retail stores. Active RFID uses larger, battery-powered tags that can communicate over longer distances. It's usually used to track valuable assets, whether they are things or people. The solution that I will be addressing, that involves running RFID technology over existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, is almost exclusively active RFID. We support the 802.11 standard as the communications protocol for our active RFID tags, so our customers can add software that allows them to track anything connected to the Wi-Fi network.
There are definite cost savings because our customers don't have to add any new infrastructure to support RFID. Also, more and more of the types of items they are interested in tracking, medical equipment and other expensive items, are coming already enabled for Wi-Fi. So customers can track them without the RFID tags.
All: Why have hospitals been among the early adopters of Wi-Fi/RFID combinations? And what other businesses are using these solutions?
Braatz: Because hospitals were traditionally early adopters of wireless data, many of them already have Wi-Fi networks in place. That's largely due to the push for electronic medical records. They also have a lot of pages and other voice communication going on, and Wi-Fi is a good platform for voice. They want to use the infrastructure for other applications, to leverage their existing investment as much as possible. Hospitals are also a very chaotic environment, with 90 percent of the things there either on wheels or two feet. With things constantly being moved, the need for tracking becomes even more important. It can be a very effective cost containment strategy for them. Hospitals traditionally over-procure equipment because they know they will lose track of a lot of it.
Both manufacturers and distributors are interested in using these solutions in the supply chain, where you've got a lot of people and goods and equipment moving around. If you don't have the people or the equipment in the right place at the right time, you're not going to be efficient. Low-margin businesses cannot afford that kind of inefficiency. We have one client who manufactures carbon fiber that it sells to the automotive and aerospace industries. There are regulations as to how long their employees can be exposed to these materials, so they are using the technology to track employees, and ensure they are compliant with these regulations.
All: What about security? Since there are security questions surrounding both RFID and Wi-Fi, it seems combining the two could create undue security hassles.
Braatz: First, Wi-Fi is a well-understood, standards-based technology. So we're not asking IT to tackle a technology that is new to them. That said, it's important to ensure you are using best practices around wireless security, period, RFID notwithstanding. The other thing is, the RFID tags we use do not store data; they essentially just pass identification data over the network. Patient information and other sensitive data is stored on the network, not on the tags. You can encrypt the data if you want to, but the data being transferred is generally minimal and not of a sensitive nature.