Extending the Family
Family is everything, they say. In packaging, data derived from the parent-to-child relationships established during packaging could help streamline product tracking throughout the supply chain. It may even play a role in verifying pedigrees.
Such inference "can enhance patient safety in the supply chain, and it is needed for efficiency," says Ted Ng, director, risk management, for McKesson’s Business Technology Solutions. "Inference allows supply-chain partners to leverage the good business practices initiated by manufacturers and then continued through the supply chain by downstream trading partners."
For instance, distributors would like to be able to infer that the contents of intact inbound RFID-tagged cases are present without opening those cases. By reading the RFID tags on these cases, distributors can infer that the RFID-tagged bottles are inside. "The best integrity is a sealed case from a manufacturer," says Ng. "We don’t want to open every case and read every bottle. And our customers don’t want cases from manufacturers that have already been opened by distributors."
But will inference be allowed under emerging pedigree rules? Or will distributors be required to read all the RFID-tagged bottles through the box, slowing down inbound shipments? Or will they have to open cases to read every item?
These questions have yet to be answered in any official way. EPCglobal is working on a definition of inference. Key concepts will include:
- Advanced information about serial numbers in shipment.
- Matching physical product to numbers.
- Visual inspection of product.
- Inference incorporated into internal standard operating procedures.
Distributors would love to see inference embraced. "Industry acceptance is needed for unit-level inference when unit-level read rates are not possible," Cardinal Health stated in a press release on its RFID pilot program.
Such a practice could streamline verification along the supply chain. Some manufacturers, however, have questioned whether inference lessens the value proposition of RFID. If only case-level RFID tags are going to be read along the supply chain, why apply unit-level tags?
Because mixed totes make up the bulk of shipments from distributor to pharmacy, not intact cases from manufacturers. "To protect patient safety, we need to have products tagged at the unit level. The risk is at the bottle level, not at the case level," Ng says. "While a bar code is an important component of supply chain security, RFID technology will take us to a new level."
To be able to rely upon inference, security is essential. "Inference requires that the seals on the cases and containers be automatically verified as intact and untampered," says Daniel Engels, a professor at the University of Texas, Arlington. Engels was also one of the founders of MIT’s Auto-ID Center. "If the container is unopened, then we can infer its contents are still there."
The answer may indeed be the catchall advice from FDA and nearly every security tech provider: layer, layer, layer. RFID offers tremendous value in identifying and tracking products, and streamlining supply-chain events. But even RFID needs layering. RFID tags at several packaging levels may be needed to cover every supply-chain scenario. And RFID needs other technologies to back it up, too, such as tamper evidence.