RFID: Hope or Hype?
It’s difficult to write about packaging these days without mentioning radio-frequency identification. Vendors are offering a host of RFID solutions, but are manufacturers ready to implement them?
Some are skeptical. According to META Group analysts, for example, FDA’s estimated 3-year timeline for pharmaceutical companies to complete RFID tagging at the case and pallet levels is “overly optimistic.” The group points to challenges with the technology. Others cite high costs and the lack of standardization as factors that will cause delays. Despite these concerns, META Group has predicted an increase in the use of RFID technology over the next 18 months.
Industry seems to be responding to the RFID buzz. Companies have started pilot programs to test the feasibility of RFID for tracking and tracing—not only at the case and pallet levels but at the unit level as well. Accenture, for example, has undertaken a study dubbed “Pharma Jumpstart” to track bottles of prescription drugs through the supply chain. And Capgemini, a provider of consulting, technology, and outsourcing services, in conjunction with software vendor Supply-Scape, has opened an RFID Center of Excellence in Cambridge, MA, to test anticounterfeiting RFID pilots. The initiative allows pharmaceutical companies to pilot their drug pedigree authentication programs with leading RFID solutions providers.
Trade shows and conferences are also focusing more exclusively on RFID. This year’s Pack Expo International show in Chicago, November 7–11, debuts an RFID Pavilion where exhibitors will showcase technologies to upgrade conventional packaging lines into RFID-enabled lines capable of applying multi- pack, case, and pallet tags on-line. They will also exhibit technologies to verify the presence of tags, write to the tags, and validate data on the tags.
A quick glance at the Pack Expo conference schedule reveals a significant number of sessions focusing on security packaging and RFID. Rob Manak, solutions consultant for The Glennon Group, is presenting a session on Monday, November 8, titled “RFID and Practical Applications of the Smart Label.” Manak agrees that there is a lot of hype surrounding RFID, but he believes that hype is warranted. “There are a lot of naysayers with regard to the technology,” he says, “but it seems to be functional to the point where rollout is not going to create the headaches that a lot of people expect.”
Manak sees case- and pallet-level tagging as a test arena for item-level tagging—and he sees the pharmaceutical industry as leading the way. “Once we can get things near perfect at the case and pallet level, and also get the cost down, then I believe you will see the technology turning to the individual-product level.”
Manak admits that improvements are still needed. One of the issues Manak will focus on during his presentation is the inherent problem with running an RFID label through a printer. Bob Lanzendorf, OEM sales and marketing manager for SATO America Inc., will join Manak to address attendees’ concerns.
Whether companies are for or against RFID, it is likely that at some point those that haven’t done so already will have to jump on the RFID bandwagon. FDA may not be mandating its use, but the agency strongly supports the technology for securing the supply chain and is working closely with industry to come up with solutions. This, coupled with the growing list of retailers that require their suppliers to incorporate RFID at the pallet level, has many manufacturers approaching RFID as if it were law.
If RFID follows in the footsteps of the bar code, their efforts will not be wasted.