RFID Goes Live in the Lab

RFID technology performs well in a live lab environment. But will that drive industry standards and implementation?

By Daphne Allen, Editor
Systech International’s laboratory study of RFID looked at item-level RFID tagging and reading of bottles and other packages by manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers in the drug supply chain.

Systech International Inc. (Cranbury, NJ) hosted a “living laboratory” in September to study radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology in a live environment. Bringing together drug manufacturers, RFID technology vendors, wholesalers, and retailers, the lab studied the use of high-frequency (HF) and ultra-high-frequency (UHF) tags operating on a variety of packaging configurations in a live environment.

The September study was part of an ongoing industry initiative called On Track, which was developed by McKesson, Accenture and other companies. At the EPCglobal U.S. Conference 2006 in Los Angeles in October, Ron Bone, senior vice president, distribution support, McKesson Pharmaceutical, explained that On Track’s intent is to “drive toward a safe and secure supply chain while increasing cost efficiency and the quality of healthcare through pharmaceutical serialization.” He added that “we don’t see this as proprietary—we all need to learn at once to facilitate the reality of multiple technology providers.”

The trial involved tags, readers, and resources from RFID technology vendors such as Impinj, Symbol Technologies, and Tagsys.

“Participants took part not to compete, but rather to understand the technology in certain use-case scenarios,” says David DeJean, Systech’s international director of PPM sales. The trial referenced use-case scenarios from EPCglobal’s Health and Life Sciences (HLS) business action group. According to Systech, the trial simulated pharmaceutical manufacturing, wholesale distribution, and retail dispensing.

For instance, RFID performance was studied in the following scenarios:

• RFID tagging of items and cases by manufacturers.
• RFID reading and tagging in a wholesaler’s pick, pack, and ship operations.
• RFID reading by retailers, including RFID tags in mixed totes.

Four packaging styles were studied: blisters, bottles, syringes, and vials. The bottles, syringes, and vials featured RFID labeling; the blisters were enclosed in wallet-style cards featuring RFID tags.

DeJean says that, in general, testing results were what participants had expected. “The technology is viable. There weren’t too many surprises,” he says, calling the tests “successful.” Labeled bottles and walleted blisters, for instance, reached 100% read rates in normal use-case scenarios.

David DeJean of Systech, who spoke at October’s EPCglobal U.S. Conference 2006, says that all supply-chain participants must work together to standardize RFID practices.

Because the testing results are scheduled to be published in a white paper made available only to the manufacturers, vendors, wholesalers, and retailers associated with the On Track program, DeJean couldn’t reveal too many details of the results. He does say, however, that “work still needs to be done with the mixed tote.” He adds: “It is a difficult use-case scenario, with a couple of hundred different packages and tags. Some use-case scenarios presented just weren’t realistic—they caused more problems than the technology did.”

DeJean believes that programs like On Track, which attempt to align manufacturers, vendors, wholesalers, and retailers, will go a long way toward industry adoption. “People often question whether there is significant value to having RFID technology, given the cost barriers,” he reports. “To be broadly adopted, large companies need to show their commitment to the technology. Until then, we will just have hiccups and starts and stops.”

DeJean acknowledges the importance of industry standards. “Until there is clear direction, industry won’t do anything.”

And work like On Track’s may help push industry standards. “If there are gaps in the technology, we as vendors can begin to address them,” adds DeJean. “In the lab, we were looking at the performance criteria for RFID tags and readers.”

Particularly challenging for the drug industry are the differing pedigree drug laws emerging from state to state along with FDA’s reinstated Prescription Drug Marketing Act requiring drug pedigrees. “They need to be harmonized,” advises DeJean.

For now, California is giving industry a bit of a reprieve. At the EPCglobal conference, Judi Nurse, supervising inspector for the California Board of Pharmacy, told attendees that the state’s pedigree requirements have been delayed until January 2009. “Mainly because industry is not ready,” she said. “It will allow the technology to mature and allow for standards to be developed for inteoperability up and down the supply chain. We don’t want manufacturers to throw something together. We need a valuable tool to combat counterfeiting.” (For more on Nurse’s presentation and others, visit www.epcglobalus.org.)

Users of RFID technology must be continually involved in technology development. “Manufacturers that tag products need to be sure that retailers will be there to read tags,” DeJean says.

As active as Systech is in supporting RFID adoption, DeJean says that the company remains “agnostic to the carrier of the serialization.” In fact, he would like to see FDA encourage “serialization” rather than just “RFID.”

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