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Stowers Institute unveils item-level tagging for medical showroom

The item-level tagging movement is spreading from apparel and footwear to the medical industry. At least that’s the case at Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, where an entire showroom of research and medical supplies has been tagged to allow for greater ease of purchasing for its staff of scientists.

The 700 square-foot retail showroom contains $225,000 worth of tagged medical products, ranging from $8 boxes of latex gloves to complex enzymes, reagents and frozen research products that retail for $2,500. About $65,000 worth of product is sold from the showroom each month.

item-level RFID, medical devices

One of the retail aisles stocked with RFID-tagged items for researchers

“Our researchers absolutely love this,” says Jessica Witt, head of research systems at Stowers Institute. “They really enjoy being able to walk down the aisles and easily find things. They like the way it’s merchandised and the checkout process is phenomenal. You can put 30 items on a table and checkout immediately.”

The stockroom went live at the end of September and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is staffed by one associate but is often unmanned, allowing researchers to check out products whenever the need arises.

The shopping area contains items stacked on metal shelves similar to a grocery store, as well as a dozen refrigerator and freezer units for temperature controlled inventory. There is also a storage area for hazardous materials like chemicals.

The system, installed by Terso Solutions, is set up to allow for expansion down the road. It replaced a system supplied by Cardinal Health that allowed researchers to login to an account, specify the products they were looking for, and then remove them from locked cabinets. Witt began to research new alternatives when Cardinal Health stopped supporting the system.

The new system, which Terso now hopes to commercialize to others in the medical research and healthcare field, keeps tabs on roughly 1,000 products. Aside from vastly streamlining the purchasing process for researchers, the Smart Stockroom reduces shrinkage by recording exactly how many items were removed.

When researchers enter the store, they browse several aisles for the products they need. Once they locate their supplies, they place all items on a table at the checkout station and record their fingerprint for identification purposes. When they hit “checkout” at the table, an email message is automatically generated that details what they’ve purchased. The system automatically charges the exact research budget for what has been purchased so that funds are removed from the proper research grant. The system then creates a re-order in Stowers’ Oracle ERP purchasing system to replace the purchased products.

Aside from reducing shrinkage, the RFID-enabled showroom allows the Stowers Institute to carry a wider array of merchandise for the 350 staff scientists who operate there. Witt can also purchase items in larger quantities, making the non-profit institute eligible for to receive better pricing from suppliers. Additionally, the system offers product options that scientists can compare while making purchases, allowing them to do comparison shopping and stretching grant funds for particular projects to the furthest limit.

The showroom's checkout area.

The RFID-enabled store also alerts stockroom personnel when its inventory drops below specified levels, ensuring that inventory is reordered on time. Stowers researchers analyze how genes and proteins control virtually all biological processes; from cell division to cell differentiation; from processing smells to storing fat; from generating memories to regenerating missing body parts.

When Witt first approached Terso Solutions about engineering the new system, the Terso team tried to sell the Institute on its RFID-enabled cabinets and freezers. However, Witt had her heart set on the RFID-enabled stockroom concept after researching similar unmanned systems that sold drinks and candy at an airport in Florida.

“We wanted this to resemble something like a shopping experience where people can come in and look at shelves and easily find items and really just be able to easily handle them and check the items out automatically,” says Witt.

Keith Hoffman, marketing director at Terso Solutions, says that his company had already designed the solution, and that they were just waiting for the right partner to launch it with.

“Their workflow is designed around an open stockroom concept,” says Hoffman. “We’ve had this in the product pipeline for a while and we’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity to dust it off and deploy it. Stowers already had their workflow written down so it was very seamless. The checkout area very much resembles a self-checkout area at a grocery store.”

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