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Tiny discs help SRI / Surgical Express keep track of its gowns

It's 11 p.m. Do you know where your hospital gown is?

Thanks to radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology, SRI/Surgical Express Inc. does.

The Tampa hospital supply company has sewn high-tech RFID tracking tags into more than 1-million reusuable surgical gowns and drapes it delivers daily to hospitals nationwide. SRI also has installed RFID readers at its 10 processing plants. The new system will replace traditional bar codes, with RFID readers transmitting a signal to the tags and retrieving stored information from the dime-size discs.

Charles Pope, SRI's chief financial officer, said his company is implementing RFID for the same reason the system has attracted major retailers such as Wal-Mart and consumer products companies such as Procter and Gamble: inventory control.

"But it will also allow us to reduce the labor force in our facilities by 5 percent," Pope said, declining to say how many jobs would be affected by the change. SRI's total work force is about 1,000.

Under the old system, workers at SRI's processing plants, including one in Ybor City, inspected and folded clean gowns and drapes, then scanned a bar code on each item before it was shipped to a hospital.

The new system combines the two steps, with an RFID reader mounted on the folding table recording data from each tag as the item is being inspected and folded. In addition to identifying the item, the RFID system keeps track of the number of times each gown has been used.

SRI did not disclose the cost of its RFID rollout. "The main issue was the cost of reading the bar code vs. total automation with an RFID chip," Pope said.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, told its 100 top suppliers in June that they would be required to put RFID tags on all shipping crates and pallets by January 2005, estimating that tags could cost as little as 5 cents each. More typically, RFID tags cost at least 50 cents each and RFID readers sell for $1,000 or more.

Since RFID readers can read tags from a distance, privacy advocates have worried that the technology will allow companies to keep tabs on their products _ and customers _ long after both have left the store.

But Pope said SRI's use of the technology will be limited to inventory-taking at the plant, using a reader that can transmit information only a few feet and does not have GPS tracking ability. Hospitals and patients will not even be aware of the new tracking devices in the operating rooms, he said. "It will be invisible to the customer."

_ Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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