Keepin' It Real
RFID technology has the potential to be one of the greatest advantages that industry has against counterfeiting. It also holds promise as a supply-chain management and visibility tool. Many aspects of the technology, though, such as form and frequency, are still being heavily debated. But for all the obstacles preventing industry from fully embracing and deploying the technology, the promise of its capabilities is enough to keep industry pursuing it.
“Since its inception, RFID has been hailed as the panacea for a more sophisticated and efficient global supply chain, but there are many questions to answer before this is realized,” says Henri Barthel, technical director at EPCglobal. Barthel is coordinating a consortium of 31 organizations launching a three-year research and development project on RFID applications. This project is a large-scale example of what many individual companies are doing to test the effectiveness, reliability, and consistency of the technology through various forms of pilot programs. These programs help identify RFID’s shortcomings and areas in a company’s supply chain that lack the hardware or software to incorporate RFID or use it as efficiently as possible.
These programs require time and money but reflect industry’s willingness to set long-term goals in making RFID an indispensable and consistently reliable tool. Such efforts also suggest a continuing hope that RFID really could be the cure-all for problems that arise throughout the supply chain. But it’s not there yet. Contrasting arguments over which tags and frequencies are most effective— combined with FDA’s decision to wait before making any mandates regarding RFID implementation—make it clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done in perfecting the technology as well as in uniting industry in its usage of RFID. The following are examples of current efforts to test and incorporate RFID.
A consortium of 31 global organ-izations has launched a three-year project called Building Radio-frequency IDentification solutions for the Global Environment (BRIDGE). The BRIDGE project is being coordinated by GS1 (Brussels), the global data standards body, and is receiving ?7.5 million in funding from the European Union’s Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP6). The consortium includes six GS1 member organizations and five universities in Europe and China—three with Auto-ID labs.
The rest of the consortium is made up of 12 solution providers and seven business end-users. Henri Barthel, technical director at EPCglobal and the project’s coordinator, says that “cross-industry participation in such a large-scale project is key to its success.”
The project will focus on business-based research, provision of information services and hardware such as sensors and tags, and software development. It is a first step toward running more pilot programs and creating comprehensive training materials in the use of RFID in various business sectors. “The BRIDGE project will transform RFID from being an identification technology into providing an EPCglobal-based product-information network,” says Barthel.
TAG, YOU'RE IT
Biomet Inc. (Warsaw, IN) has started an RFID tagging project to improve customer service and its own reverse logistics. The company’s Biomet Europe division (Dordrecht, The Netherlands) is adding 13.56-MHz tags to its orthopedic knee implant items in loaner sets that it sends to surgeons. Each set contains about 100 parts. By adding an RFID tag to each part’s individual packaging, the company hopes to better ensure that the loaner sets are complete before they are sent out and that they can be quickly checked once they are returned. Of the parts in each set, only a portion is used in various operations, so the parts that have been removed need to be invoiced upon return to the distribution center in The Netherlands.
Currently all items are identified by a bar code label. To check for missing items and calculate an invoice, an operator must scan every bar code—a process that can take up to 20 minutes. The company expects to be able to increase productivity in its warehouse and improve stock counts and turnover by using RFID. Biomet is using 4 ¥ 8-cm tags from Aivar Technologies, which are made with inlays from Tagstar.
The RFID system is integrated with Biomet’s mySAP enterprise resource planning system. The software integration means the RFID used in the trial will be part of the company’s day-to-day operations. This will help the company compare the program to existing operations.
Packaging-boards producer Stora Enso (Helsinki, Finland) and pharmaceutical manufacturer Orion Corp. (Espoo, Finland) have reported successful results from a pilot project the two companies conducted together. The project tested authentication of RFID-tagged pharmaceutical packaging in Finnish and Estonian pharmacies.
The project relied on PackAgent brand-authentication software, developed by Stora Enso. According to Kirsi Viskari, manager, intelligent solutions, at Stora Enso, the trial involved tagging Orion’s pharmaceuticals for item-level identification. The PackAgent software automatically updated the tracking information of the products as they moved along the supply chain from the manufacturer to the pharmacies, providing a complete tracking history to be used for electronic pedigree.
The results of the pilot suggest HF tags used for item-level identification performed particularly well at the point of sale. Stora Enso reports that tags were incorporated to the cartons during converting and achieved a 100% read rate after the manufacturer’s packing line. UHF tags were found suitable for transport-box or pallet-level tracking. The trial also included a successful test of the software’s product-recall function.
Magellan Technology (Sydney, Australia) and UPM Raflatac (Tampere, Finland) have formed a partnership specifically to address the most challenging aspects of tagging pharmaceuticals with RFID. The goal of the partnership is to enable the companies not only to expand their product portfolios in the pharmaceutical industry, but also to bring their technology in the right form factors directly to users in the industry.
The companies list high-speed issuing at pharmaceutical manufacturers, reliable identification throughout the supply chain, and fighting counterfeit products with security features and RFID labels as the most challenging aspects of RFID tagging currently. To help fight such challenges, Magellan offers its phase-jitter modulation (PJM) RFID technology. PJM provides full stacking capabilities with zero separation of RFID tags. It also has an anticollision method to rapidly identify large quantities of tagged pharmaceuticals and high-speed read-and-write access to tag data. UPM now offers its RFID tags and inlays featuring the PJM technology.