Tracking on the Go

Baylor College of Medicine in Houston (photo: Baylor College of Medicine)

Surrounded by skyscrapers, heavy-duty construction cranes, and bustling students, I could be standing on any given block in midtown Manhattan. But I am actually in the heart of the world-renowned Texas Medical Center in the city of Houston, standing on the doorstep of the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM).


Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the only private medical school in the U.S. Greater Southwest, is recognized as a premier academic health science center and is known for excellence in education, research, and patient care.

I’m waiting for a shuttle to take me back to Baylor’s business office,
along with Arsenio Arceo, property control specialist for BCM. For the past hour, I had followed Arceo around as he scanned a smorgasbord of cutting-edge (and very expensive) BCM medical equipment, using a sturdy handheld device powered by the SAP NetWeaver Mobile component.

The entire process was flawless. In fact, weaving our way through the labyrinthine section of the campus proved to be the most difficult aspect of the journey – and for this reason alone, I can fully appreciate why BCM decided to update its inventory management system with SAP. Tens of millions of dollars of BCM equipment are spread throughout Houston in more than 50 different locations, most of it not owned or managed by the college.

With doctors constantly re-locating and departments lending, sharing, and moving some of these (approximately 10,000) devices around, the need for a robust tracking system is critical. Under the prior process, inventory specialists sometimes had to return three or four times to a location to verify results for a single piece of equipment.

New tracking system

Before embarking on my scanning trek with Arceo, I had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Sammons, analyst and project lead for BCM, to learn why they had chosen SAP over other vendors. Sammons made it perfectly clear that there were several less expensive “bolt-on” solutions that would have sufficed, but at the end of the day SAP won out because BCM was already running SAP ERP and SAP Supplier Relationship Management applications, including employee self-service functionality.

“We didn’t want to have to go back and reinvent the wheel; we wanted to remain SAP-centric and take on the new tracking system without missing a beat,” said Sammons. “With bolt-on solutions there are extended maintenance costs, license renewals, and patch upgrades. This is something we wanted to avoid.”

Sammons said he also wanted to be prepared for the new hospital BCM is planning to open by 2011 that will double its inventory. “We wanted to prepare ourselves by investing in one technology, becoming comfortable with the new system, and being ready to perhaps increase our workload without having to increase our staff.”

After BCM decided to use SAP NetWeaver Mobile, the team needed to find a consultant with experience implementing a solution still in the SAP ramp-up program. At the time, this task proved simple because very few vendors could deliver SAP Netweaver Mobile.

The BCM team contacted InfoLogix. “We approached InfoLogix because they were already doing an implementation for a large-scale client, they had good references, and their price was competitive,” said Sammons. “They used their influence and experience with a recently completed project that utilized SAP NetWeaver Mobile to get us into the ramp-up program. We jumped on that wave and were able to ride it for a little while.”

Sammons said a team of six BCM specialists, armed with mobile bar code scanners, works full time to collect and update inventory and validate assets by location and room. To do this, they scan the bar code on the asset and compare the values from downloaded SAP data. When the user logs into the handheld, a synchronization process is triggered to download asset data. This data is filtered, based on Baylor’s preferences on the back-end SAP system.

“Upgrading our prior scanning system might not have worked or would have proved to be too expensive,” said Sammons. “SAP NetWeaver Mobile is flexible and easy to configure for different users.”

Experience SAP NetWeaver Mobile in action with author Tim Clark

Thanks to my knowledgeable BCM tour guide Arsenio Arceo, I have the opportunity to see this flexible user interface in action. We barely make it past the front desk before Arceo spies a $6,000 freezer in the hallway. He points out that the green dot on the bar code sticker affixed to the freezer means this item resides in the BCM system. So he aims his trusty mobile device near the bar code, and a simple beep lets us know that the status has been scanned and updated successfully.

Now we’re off to the microscope room, which is dimly lit and chock full of high-powered microscopes, monitors, and servers. All told, there’s “easily a few million dollars’ worth of equipment” in this tiny space, according to Deborah Townley from the billing department at BCM. Arceo spies an incubator that wasn’t here on his last trip and scans it into the system before entering a few serial numbers and hitting “accept” on the handheld.

Then it’s off to the molecular cell biology department, where the price tag keeps spiraling upward: A microscope capable of examining the nucleus of cells is worth U.S.$125,000. Arceo’s trusty handheld continues to work beautifully, with SAP NetWeaver Mobile capturing and updating the whereabouts of these life-saving devices without a hitch.

I pick up on a funny odor as we make our way down a long corridor lined with doors to the animal research wing. We finally come across two gentlemen discussing the finer points of decontamination right outside a sealed chamber. Arceo needs to get into the chamber to scan the biodecontaminator inside worth U.S.$120,000. Since it was being tested, he has to come back another time. So we take an elevator up to another floor, where more BCM devices are lining the hallways and occupying different rooms of the molecular genetics wing.

This area is a flurry of activity, with lab technicians bustling about a sea of beakers, test tubes, microscopes, and other devices. In this busy environment, it’s even harder to hunt down BCM medical devices, but Arceo’s memory proves to be just as strong as the SAP inventory management system that he relies on daily. As we work our way through this one section of the campus, I wondered how other medical schools and hospitals in the Houston area, or across the country for that matter, are keeping tabs on the whereabouts of their medical devices.

Beyond question, inventory management of any kind can be an arduous process, but SAP NetWeaver Mobile certainly makes it easier. As Arceo and I wait on the doorstep of BCM for our shuttle back to the business office, I ask him if he can imagine what life would be like if BCM still used its prior process, which involved outdated scanners and proprietary software that did not synchronize with back-end systems.

“It wouldn’t be a good situation at all,” he says. “The SAP system is easy to use, it’s dependable, and it is flexible enough to handle more capacity. The prior process was much more difficult and could not generate the efficiencies we are enjoying today.”