It’s happened to even the best-run college unions. Early one Friday morning, you come into work, unlock doors, and walk around the building … only to find furniture missing. You begin to look around, thinking, “Students must have moved the sofas for group work again.” But you check the usual spots, ask the morning crew if they’ve seen it, and eventually come to the conclusion: it’s gone.
Keeping fixtures secure—whether in a dining hall, union building, or residence hall—is a constant challenge to staff and administrators. Past efforts to quite literally “bolt them to the floor” have proven ineffective and outdated, especially as more and more spaces require flexible, convertible tables and chairs. The option to lock down entire rooms and buildings is disappearing too, as students seek late-night venues for group work, studying, and sipping their Orange Mocha Frappuccinos.
Many administrators facing this issue have wondered—silently, aloud, and online—can’t technology help? If I can follow my car’s GPS from Tulsa to Timbuktu, why can’t I keep track of my sofa cushions in the same way? If LoJack can find a stolen minivan in rural Taiwan, can’t someone make sure that my chairs and tables stay in the same room? Well, there are a few options available to the desperate facilities director, so don’t chain down that portable workstation just yet!
On the ACUI Forum, Molly Ward from Tulane University asked about the possibility of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices on expensive pieces of furniture. Such tools provide the ability to track an object, or person, across distances and along road networks. While there are currently technologies available to be used on furniture, they tend to be bulky, expensive, easily detachable, and susceptible to tampering. Most GPS systems also can be turned off—rendering them useless for tracking purposes.
The solution to disappearing furniture may come from the minds at WalMart. Recently, the sales giant has been testing the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. Essentially, imagine a bar code on a soda can, but instead of having to be scanned, this bar code can emit its own tiny signal to a receiver.
These RFID tags offer many strategic advantages over GPS devices. First, RFID tags are smaller and cheaper. Given their size, they can easily be placed on almost any sort of object—tables, chairs, laptops, sculptures—with almost zero physical trace. Different types exist, depending on what you’re affixing the tag to: metal strips, clear stickers, and other options. Additionally, since RFID tags can be mass-produced, there is considerably less cost associated with their creation and implementation.
Let’s get back to the opening scenario: the case of the missing sofa. This time, you’ve installed a small RFID tag into the sofa. This tag emits a signal—an identification number that a union facilities director has placed on a sofa. You log into your computer system, pull up the evening log, and discover, to your relief, that the sofa’s tag never set off the door sensors. So the sofa is still in the building, but where did it go? Grab your handheld RFID tag sensor, and start walking the halls. Follow the signal strength, watch for directional indicatorsÑand within a matter of minutes, you’ve located the missing sofa. It was moved into a storage closet!
Universities won’t be alone moving to this technology. In Europe, offices and schools have already invested in these technologies to keep tabs on furniture and equipment. Groups like Haworth, a German furniture company, have been using RFID tags not only in their products, but also in the fixtures around their own offices.
The technology to implement this security and asset management plan is already available. For years, companies that specialize in process tracking, inventory, and management of fixtures have used systems like this to provide security and stability to their warehouses and facilities. With initial investments, staff trained in technology, and patient implementation, college unions can successfully implement an RFID tag system to add security and a sense of control to your fixtures.