Lately, in some supplier circles, there has been a buzz about radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags which can be used like barcodes to track inventory. A microchip with an antenna broadcasts an ID number to a reader unit. Instead of manually scanning the bar code (as is the case now), a reader can automatically scan the tags from a distance of about five to 10 feet.

Major corporations already are embracing this new technology. For instance, Wal-Mart is demanding its top 100 suppliers start implementing the tags on their palette shipments. Cleaning-industry suppliers such as Proctor and Gamble are on the list.

But what does this really mean for the cleaning industry? Even though RFID technology has been around a while, nobody’s taken the steps to be the first, says Mike Lauria, research development advisor, TEKLYNX, a Milwaukee-based company that develops label design software which is used for printed barcode and RFID applications. With a company as large as Wal-Mart using the technology, the cost of RFID technology could start to decrease, so there might be a step to standardize the technology.

“One of the major problems in the past and why there hasn’t been any wide-spread usage is because of lack of standards,” says Peter Scharpf, application engineer with the RFID systems group for Brady Worldwide, Inc., Milwaukee.

And, with reduced costs and standardization comes a trickle-down effect into other industries. More companies, including those in the jan/san industry, will be able to reap the benefits of RFID technology.

Using RFID to clean?
There are a couple ways capable building service contractors can utilize RFID technology. Possible uses include tracking shipments, equipment and even employees.

A school in Buffalo, N.Y., is currently using RFID technology to record its students’ arrival. The same idea can be applied to BSCs’ employees to track when they arrive for work. Privacy concerns, however, may negate this ability.

RFID tags can also be placed on large equipment to track when and where it is in use. The tags can also be used to combat theft by making sure the equipment doesn’t leave the premises, says Lauria. The RFID reader can be installed on a doorway and when the equipment goes near the entryway, the door will automatically lock, Lauria explains.

For now, however, RFID technology will be more beneficial to distributors than to BSCs. RFID tags can be used to track product shipments to and from a warehouse.

But if contractors are worried that this new technology will cause in increase in prices, they can relax. RFID tags cost about 50-cents a tag and then there’s the thousands of dollars for a reader — a cost that could add up too high for distributors.

If a distributor were to begin using RFID tags to track product shipments, the added costs up front would probably eventually be balanced out by the reduced labor savings from the technology, says Kevin Carlson, president and CEO, Mission Janitorial Supplies, San Diego. Putting the burden of added costs on the shoulders of the BSCs wouldn’t be a smart business move.

“We’re in an industry where a nickel, dime or quarter per case can make or break a deal,” says Michael DiAmicis, general manager, Maintenance Depot, West Palm Beach, Fla.

And distributors don’t seem eager to take on the new technology. While the cost of RFID is a drop in the bucket for a billion-dollar company like Wal-Mart, for most distributors, it would be too much for them to handle, says DiAmicis.

“Just keeping computers updated and running is enough on their plate,” he adds.

Carlson also adds that RFID isn’t realistic yet for the jan/san industry because a lot of distributors don’t even use bar-coding to begin with.

For now, the Wal-Marts of the world will test the RFID waters for the rest of the business universe. If successful, the cleaning industry could implement RFID in the near future. But for now, it’s business as usual.