Not Flying Solo
Successful RFID pilots point partners toward the next challenges.
By Daphne Allen
Slap and ship” are three words that don’t seem to be part of Randy Bradway’s vocabulary. “This stuff is not going to work out of the box,” says Bradway, who is vice president, commercial operations, for Cephalon Inc. (Frazer, PA), speaking of radio-frequency identification (RFID). “You have to develop relationships with capable technology partners to work toward solutions.”
His copilot at Cephalon, Brian Brown, senior manager, logistics and analytics, commercial operations, agrees. With RFID, “you are not just putting on another label. You are essentially putting a chip on a package. Integrating new technology involves redesigning equipment and reengineering processes.”
That’s exactly what Cephalon has been doing since the company announced in 2005 its pilot to tag various packaging levels of its Schedule II drugs. (See Track and Trace: Preparing for RFID Lift-Off in PMP News’s December 2005 issue.) The company, however, is discovering that the real challenge with RFID may not be whether it can work, but what to do with the data it generates when it does work.
Bradway describes the team that Cephalon assembled in 2005 as a “mini–think tank.” The company has been working with partners that include ADT Security Services Inc. (a division of Tyco Fire & Security; Boca Raton, FL), Impinj Inc. (Seattle), and others to apply 915-MHz tags to cartons, cases, and pallets, striving for 100% read rates.
Phase I of its project, which took place in 2004–2005, involved installing hardware and software at Cephalon’s distribution warehouse. Cephalon captured the movements of placebo product through eight RFIDenabled locations. These locations provided Cephalon with the knowledge that RFID could be utilized in a warehouse environment. Phase II testing in 2006 entailed shipping test packages to an RFID-enabled wholesaler. Now in Phase III, the team is evaluating tag selection on cases of placebo Fentora packaged in metallic blisters.
Cephalon measures performance at several locations—door portals, conveyors, shrinkwrappers, etc. “Our metrics are detection rates, read counts, and time to 100%,” says Brown.
For instance, for a while, the best reading rates at Cephalon’s distribution center were found on stretchwrapped pallets. “We were reading 64% of the Gen1 tags on pallets after 4 minutes with it spinning on the stretchwrapper,” says Brown. “Now that the tags and readers have evolved, we are reading 100% of the Gen2 tags in less than 5 seconds.
Cephalon is hopeful that Gen2 item-level tagging will be just as successful, as its partner, Impinj, suggests. “We haven’t seen any evidence that Gen2 UHF won’t work,” says Brown. “It’s a much better world now. The tags have better resistance to detuning on metals as well as excellent manufacturing consistency.” Now testing Gen2 in its lab, Cephalon will move toward tagging on the manufacturing line. “We are piloting as if this were a production implementation,” says Brown.
But as the team works together to figure out the physics of RFID placement and reading, it sees that industry politics, instead, may be the real challenge. “It is all about the data,” says Bradway. “What do you do about it in a highly regulated industry? The supply chain is not ready to track a package or tell where it has been.”
With electronic product codes (EPCs) and advanced shipping notices (ASNs), “supply-chain partners will be able to work with the data,” says Brown. “These companies will be able to develop systems for the internal movement of data.”
“But data can be proprietary,” says Bradway. “Supply-chain partners need to share transactional data, but still maintain confidentiality. We need best practices. Where are all the elements of those transactions going to reside? Do we have a federal government database? No one has fully thought through the process.”
Paying for RFID is also another hurdle. “Pharmacies, with their small margins, have no incentives to pay for it. Wholesalers, too, face their own cost issues. It is up to the manufacturers,” Bradway says.
“We need to do it to secure the supply chain for patient safety,” he continues. But at the end of the day, he admits, consumers will pay for it, even if through the largest payer—the government. “Taxes,” he says.
But RFID presents distinct business opportunities. “We can change the way we do business and ship more efficiently,” Bradway says. And it can improve patient safety well beyond stemming counterfeits. Coupled with electronic prescribing, identifying products with RFID technology could remove humans from the equation and eliminate many medical errors, says Bradway.