Leveraging Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology to Improve Laboratory Information Management


(Reprinted from American Laboratory September 2004)


Technologies for identifying unique items using radio waves, also known as radio frequency identification (RFID), have been available for decades. In the past, the lack of standards and the high cost of tags and readers have limited RFID applications to tracking highvalue items. Now that the cost of RFID tags has significantly declined and interoperability standards are being defined, the technology is being applied throughout supply chains. While most supply chain systems are focused on deploying RFID technology on the pallet, case, and carton levels, laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are leveraging RFID data to enhance item (sample) level tracking by creating a location-based, real-time chain-of-custody (COC). 


Forensic, clinical trial, and diagnostic laboratories offer an excellent example of a situation in which the COC and integrity of the sample life cycle are crucial.  The outcome of a prosecution or diagnostic conclusion depends on thoroughly documenting the movement of samples from one pair of hands to the next. RFID tracking can offer a robust and real-time solution. According to a study by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, “For an average clinical trial of a drug, applying RFID can speed the trial’s completion by up to 5 percent, as well as reduce start-up delays and decrease trial errors and dropouts of trial participants.”(1)


This article discusses RFID technology, RFID laboratory applications, and the technique’s integration with LIMS. The applied technology is illustrated by STARLIMS RFID integration components (STARLIMS Corp., Hollywood, FL).


RFID technology

A basic RFID system consists of three components: antenna, transceiver (with decoder), and transponder (RF tag). The antenna activates the tag with radio signals in order to read (or write) data and is the conduit between the tag and the transceiver. The transceiver controls the system’s data acquisition and communication. The transponder, or tag, carries unique electronically programmed information. RFID tags used for tracking are programmed with a unique set of data (usually 32–128 bits) that cannot be modified. 


Often the antenna is packaged with both a transceiver and decoder to operate as a reader that emits radio waves. When an RFID tag passes through the electromagnetic field, it detects the reader’s activation signal. The reader decodes the data encoded in the tag’s integrated circuit and the data are passed to the host computer for processing. 


Hailed by IDC (Framingham, MA) analyst Christopher Boone as “the oldest new technology,” (2) RFID technology has been used for years in access cards, livestock tracking, and transponders for automated highway toll collection. What is new and attractive about RFID technology is that the standardization and major reduction in cost are turning it into a highly feasible and advanced alternative to the venerable bar-code solutions. 


While bar-code systems use optical signals to transfer information from the printed coded label to the bar-code scanner, RFID uses radio frequency signals to transfer information from the RFID tag attached to the tracked item to the RFID reader located in that vicinity. However, unlike bar-code scanning, RFID reading can be done remotely and does not require direct contact or line of sight between the item and the reader. The reader communicates with a tag that holds digital information (i.e., a unique identification number) programmed on a microchip.  The RFID antenna enables the microchip to transmit static and dynamic identification data Leveraging Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology to Improve Laboratory Information Management by Mukunth Venkatesan and Zvi Grauer to the reader. The reader converts the radio waves into data, which are passed on to connected information systems. Once the tag’s unique identification number is received, the item carrying the tag can be associated with various dynamic data, such as its origin, expiration date, and storage requirements.

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