RFID Moves Forward

April 2, 2007
Hallie Forcinio
Pharmaceutical Technology
Volume 31, Issue 4

Many radio frequency identification projects are moving beyond the pilot stage, supported by new hardware and software tools.

The pharmaceutical industry continues to embrace radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Pilot projects are demonstrating proof-of-concept and moving beyond compliance with retailer mandates to identify ways to benefit internally from the product visibility data RFID makes available. Several companies have made the move to full-scale implementation. Maturing hardware and software tools bring higher functionality with less customization.

E-pedigree study

An end-to-end e-pedigree pilot undertaken in 2006 by Cardinal Health, Inc. (Dublin, OH, www.cardinal.com) indicates pallet- and case-level ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tagging works better than item-level tagging at present, but it still needs improvement to achieve read rates above 99% consistently (see "Tagging Tools to Provide E-Pedigree, Pharmaceutical Technology, September 2006). "A great deal of additional work needs to be undertaken by stakeholders across the industry to address significant challenges [related to item-level tagging], including global standards, privacy concerns, and the safe handling of biologics," says Renard Jackson, vice-president and general manager of global packaging services for Cardinal. "Until those challenges are addressed, direct distribution of medicine continues to be the best near-term approach to maintain the highest levels of security and efficiency in the pharmaceutical supply chain," he states. Jackson concludes, however,"Cardinal Health's test of RFID under real-world conditions has demonstrated that the technology has real promise to provide an added layer of safety."

The Cardinal study also found that tag encoding and application can occur at line speeds with minimal adjustments to current labeling and packaging lines. On-line encoding yields ranged between 95% and 97% but could approach 100% with some fine-tuning of the process.

Hallie Forcinio

Item-level read rates varied from less than 10% to nearly 100%, depending on the product, situation, and read location. In general, primary packages read well when cases were scanned one at a time. Item-level read rates decreased when full pallets were scanned and at read points beyond the unit-to-case aggregation point. Read rates for tagged product in mixed-product totes varied.

At the case level, full-pallet loads often can be read at 100%. Further testing is needed to determine whether process changes and hardware tuning can achieve 100% read rates consistently. It also may be necessary to use bar code technology to complement and serve as a back-up to RFID.

Full-scale implementations

Another pioneer in RFID technology, Purdue Pharma L.P. (Stamford, CT, www.purduepharma.com), is deploying item-level tagging to improve pharmaceutical supply-chain efficiency and security and enable e-pedigree recordkeeping (see "Tagging Tools to Provide E-Pedigree," Pharmaceutical Technology, September 2006). The company is achieving 100% read reliability and exceeding read-rate requirements with UHF electronic product code (EPC) Class 1 Gen 2 technology (RFID tags equipped with "Monza" chips, "Speedway" RFID readers, and near-field antennas from Impinj, Inc., (Seattle, WA, www.impinj.com).

Tracking software certifies, captures, and analyzes the data from the RFID tags ("TIPS" serialized product-tracking solution, SYSTECH International, Cranbury, NJ, www.systech-tips.com). "The ... technology has been selected as an integral part of our packaging-line improvements to help the company establish an e-pedigree process that will significantly improve the delivery of products from the factory to the pharmacy counter," says Aaron Graham, vice-president of corporate security and chief security officer at Purdue Pharma.

RFID implementation at Schiff Nutrition International (Salt Lake City, UT, www.schiffnutrition.com), a maker of vitamins and nutritional supplements, shows how pharmaceutical companies can benefit from RFID deployments and demonstrates that RFID is practical for mid-size companies.

RFID readers can be built into stretch wrappers such as the "Q-300" from Lantech. Retrofits also are possible.

Like Cardinal Health and Purdue Pharma, Schiff relies on UHF Gen 2 technology. Although initially driven by the need to comply with the RFID tagging initiative of Wal-Mart Stores (Bentonville, AR, www.walmart.com), Schiff has moved beyond compliance and has used the technology to increase product visibility. The goal is to manage promotions and new product introductions and reduce inventory depletions.

Tags are printed, encoded, and manually applied to cases of products destined for Wal-Mart ("SL5000r MP2" printer–encoder, Printronix Inc., Irvine, CA, www.printronix.com; "smart labels" from Printronix with "squiggle inlay" from Alien Technology, Morgan Hill, CA, www.alientechnology.com). When an order is received from the retailer, mixed pallets are built, and tags are read by a reader mounted next to the stretch wrapper ("Alien ALR-9800" reader, Alien Technology).

Case-level data captured by the reader is linked to pallet information to create a pallet manifest that enables product to be tracked throughout the distribution system ("tag@source" and "OATxpress" software, OATSystems, Inc., Waltham, MA, www.oatsystems.com; "WebSphere RFID Premises" server from IBM, Armonk, NY, www.ibm.com).

The project began with an RFID Solution Development Workshop to educate Schiff's staff. Other activities included system customization and laboratory testing (IBM Global Business Services, IBM). In the laboratory, Schiff tested various combinations of tags and readers to determine which worked best with its products (IBM RFID Lab, Raleigh, NC). The company also perfected data collection from mixed pallets spinning on a stretch wrapper. As a result, Schiff achieves 100% read rates as mixed pallets are wrapped on its equipment. In addition, retailers score 97% read rates on pallets of Schiff products, which is significantly better than the industry average.

Now Schiff knows which products are on which pallets and can associate product with advanced-ship notices and other documents. It also can monitor whether goods have moved to the sales floor at the start of a promotion or if inventory is decreasing. The timely handling of promotions is especially critical. A study published by EPCglobal, Inc. (Brussels, Belgium, www.epcglobalinc.org) indicates stores experience a 19% sales lift when promotions arrive on the sales floor the first day.

"We believe understanding how goods are moving out to the sales floor is where the real gold is in RFID," says Paul Cataldo, vice-president of marketing at OATSystems. "As people look for return on investment in RFID, collecting data at the time of tagging is crucial because it builds the foundation needed to analyze the process and identify opportunities for improvement," he concludes.

Distributor pilot

Visibility across the supply chain requires participation from all supply-chain partners, including distributors such as AmerisourceBergen (Valley Forge, PA, www.amerisourcebergen.com), where a track-and-trace pilot has equipped its largest distribution center in California to capture and share RFID data. As tagged product enters the distribution center, the unique product identification information from each RFID tag is captured and stored ("Electronic Product Code Information System," IBM).

When orders arrive, the RFID system monitors tagged product as shipping totes move through the picking, packing, and shipping processes. As each tote leaves the distribution center, the software records the time and location of each item as well as its intended destination so that AmerisourceBergen has a complete record of the history of all RFID-tagged drugs. "The advantage of using the RFID and Electronic Product Code Information System [EPCIS] is that the information regarding the product's journey through the supply chain is stored in a manner that is useful for a number of different applications," explains Shay Reid, vice-president for integrated solutions at AmerisourceBergen. "Once the RFID tags have been read and the data have entered the EPCIS, the system can be queried to build a product pedigree for customers on demand, to provide real-time receiving and shipping information to manufacturers as well as to more closely track both inventory and product demand."

The next step in the pilot program is to connect AmerisourceBergen's EPCIS directly to business partners' EPCIS systems. Connection occurs through communication and authentication software ("Communication–Authentication" software, VeriSign, Inc., Mountain View, CA, www.verisign.com). "This level of data sharing and connectivity is a critical step toward allowing the pharmaceutical industry to trace the historical path of a particular product through the supply chain, which will add a level of security and efficiency to the pharmaceutical distribution process," says Jeff Richards, vice-president and general manager of VeriSign Intelligent Supply-Chain Services.

RFID tools

In its implementation, Schiff Nutrition installed an RFID reader next to its stretch wrapper to capture data from RFID case tags. It is now possible to purchase stretch wrappers that incorporate RFID. One compact 7 × 9 × 2-in., battery-powered reader integrates directly into the mast, eliminates brackets, cables, antennas, and power connection, and feeds data to the plant network through an integral wireless LAN or Bluetooth connection. As a drop-in option, the IP66-rated reader works independently of the wrapper, using its own motion-sensing capability ("Q-300" semiautomatic stretch wrapper, Lantech.com, LLC, Louisville, KY, www.lantech.com; with "RD5000" portable reader from Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, NY, now part of Motorola, www.motorola.com/symbol).

Item-level tagging may benefit from source tagging, i.e., embedding the RFID tag in the container itself. At least two companies provide tagged containers ("RIFD Embedded Packages," Owens-Illinois Healthcare Packaging, Inc. [O-I], Perrysburg, OH, www.o-i.com, Rexam PLC, London, UK, www.rexam.com/pharma). In a demonstration at the RFID Health Care Industry Adoption Summit in November 2006 in Washington, DC, tagged bottles filled with liquids, gel caps, solids, and powder were encoded with 96-bit EPC numbers at a rate of more than 600 tags/min. ("RIFD Embedded Packages," O-I, UHF tag with Monza chip and Speedway reader, Impinj). A second demonstration read 48-count cases and flawlessly captured both item-level and case-level information at a rate of 600 tags/min.

Hallie Forcinio is Pharmaceutical Technology's Packaging Forum editor, 4708 Morningside Drive, Cleveland, OH 44109, tel. 216.351.5824, fax 216.351.5684, editorhal@cs.com