Ready to Roll
A pharmaceutical company installs a pilot RFID system to stay ahead of future mandates and retailer requirements.
Accu-Sort's Fast Tag platform provides single-source tag-to-ship accountability.
Given pending electronic pedigree rules and distributor and retailer requests, pharmaceutical companies are showing interest in automatic identification systems like 2-D bar coding and radio-frequency identification. To make sure it was keeping more than one step ahead of these mandates, one major pharmaceutical company contacted Accu-Sort Systems (Telford, PA), a provider of automatic data capture technology, to help the company evaluate available auto-ID technologies. The firm needed to choose the best one for its situation and learn how to integrate it with existing production, packaging, distribution, and IT systems.
While the mandates do not require a specific technology, the government suggests there are benefits in using either RFID tags or 2-D bar codes. These technologies, other options, and possible combinations of them were examined with the technology provider in preliminary discussions.
Based on a competitive proposal and previous positive experience with Accu-Sort integrating auto-ID with production, shipping, and operations at other divisions, the pharmaceutical company managers decided that RFID was the best solution for their situation and chose to install a pilot RFID tagging and tracking system.
The automated RFID-tagging pilot was designed for an existing packaging line that produced medications and personal care products. The manufacturer wanted to simulate a full-scale RFID deployment in the shipping facility. The overriding requirement was that it would be a transparent solution, operating without disrupting the existing infrastructure. The deployment could not add to, and should even reduce, the complexity of their operations.
Specific requirements included automatic placement of RFID tags on cartons and pallets without affecting current throughput and speed of the packaging line. The firm also needed to be able to integrate RFID operational data with its existing IT environment. The solution had to track products from the production facility to the distribution center located in another state, and then through the distribution center from receiving to inventory, to shipping and into outbound trailers.
THE WIRELESS AGE
In today’s wireless age, the workplace may be filled with devices competing for a finite number of fre- quencies or large amounts of metal that could interfere with RFID. The company put into the contract that the technology provider must conduct a preliminary RF site survey to establish a baseline RF environment. No conflicts requiring remediation were discovered.
Because RFID itself produces radio waves, the project team leader required a follow-up RF site survey after the RFID system was installed and operating to ensure that it was not generating any additional RF energy that could affect the performance of the packaging line or other equipment. Also, while RF has become commonplace in the manufacturing environment, there are still some concerns about RFID technology, and a secondary survey helped the team feel more comfortable using RFID in their environment.
When the specifications were established, Accu-Sort assembled a complete RFID solution. It was built on Accu-Sort’s Fast Tag platform, which provided single-source tag-to-ship accountability. The system is scalable, so the pharmaceutical company can adapt to changes in the legislative, production, and marketing environments that are bound to occur.
This in-line tagging system included automated RFID and bar code readers, a label printer, an RFID tag printer/applicator, an RFID verifier, an RFID pallet printer, a controller, and data management software to communicate with the corporate IT infrastructure. To ensure that these components met the manufacturer’s requirements, a customer trial was conducted at Accu-Sort’s facility prior to deployment on the manufacturer’s packaging line.
GAME OF TAG
After products are placed in cartons, sealed, and labeled, the laser bar code scanner detects the product SKU and sends that data to the system controller. Based on the SKU data and information previously sent from the IT infrastructure, a determination is made as to whether or not the carton needs to be tagged—a process called selective tagging. This allows the packaging line to run without interruption or changeover when the product mix changes because only those products requiring RFID labeling are tagged. Before each case is tagged, the tag is automatically verified to ensure that no bad tags enter the supply chain.
In this pilot, the team chose to tag products at the carton and pallet levels. Cartons are automatically tagged, and the tags are placed in optimum locations that are determined beforehand for maximum readability. Tagged and verified cartons are then manually stacked on a pallet. Tag position information for each case and pallet is also retained by the Fast Tag software.
When the pallet is full, an additional RFID tag is generated and placed on the pallet. The carton tags are associated with the pallet tag information, and that information is forwarded to the manufacturer’s existing IT systems. Tag reporting and performance tracking data are also forwarded by the distribution center.
With this information, the manufacturer can, in virtual space, watch the product transfer from manufacturing to shipping, to receiving at the distribution center, through the distribution center, and, eventually, out to the customer. RFID systems can also tag at the item level, but that was not included in the scope of this pilot project.
MOBILITY AND SELECTIVITY
To meet the manufacturer’s requirement for mobility during the pilot test, Accu-Sort assembled the system components on a wheeled conveyor section that can be used at the end of any of the existing packaging lines. The RFID section is wheeled into position and the associated utilities (power, compressed air, and network communications) are connected. Product tagging can begin less than five minutes after the line section is removed.
Selective tagging, mentioned previously, enables manufacturers to tag only the products that are shipping to RFID-enabled stores or to fulfill a specific contract requirement for certain products. This avoids the cost of universal tagging. Whether or not a carton or pallet should be tagged is part of the information maintained in the system’s database. Selective tagging is also a benefit when the manufacturer temporarily changes over to a different product that is not scheduled for tagging.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
Although RFID tagging has been widely adapted in other areas, its penetration in the pharmaceutical industry has been limited. However, this does not mean that it has been ignored. Through the purchase, installation, and trial of the pilot system described here, this pharmaceutical manufacturer has developed a better understanding of the relative capabilities of automatic ID systems such as 2-D bar codes and RFID; a detailed understanding of how to integrate RFID with its packaging, warehousing, shipping, and IT systems; and a firsthand assessment of the costs involved. When the mandates kick in, or when the major retailers of the world begin to require auto-ID for pharmaceutical products as they do for most other products they sell, this producer will be ready to roll out its RFID system.