Serialization: A Sharpening Focus

A contract packager narrows in on serialization specifics to provide guidance.


When it came to serialization, John Mayer used to think his company, contract packager Sharp Corp. (Allentown, PA), could run anything on its packaging lines. But as the project electrical engineer soon found out, there are engineering challenges, especially when it comes to RFID. “To get RFID right, you have to be concerned with such details as reading distances, speeds, and understanding the impacts of existing machine processes and their possible effects on your RFID application. The selection and placement of the antennas and tags have a significant impact as well,” he says.

Much of the solution is driven by customer needs and preferences. However, Sharp guides customers with a standard spec sheet that conveys the technologies and operating standards with which Sharp has experience—and has found success. For instance, Sharp is embracing ultrahigh frequency (UHF) at the item, case, and pallet levels using technology from UPM Raflatac, Impinj, and Alien Technologies, says Mayer. “There are clear advantages to UHF,” he says. (Sharp, however, will work with tags already chosen by experienced customers.) The company is also printing linear and 2-D bar codes.

In addition to outlining preferred technology at the outset of a project, Sharp works with customers to complete a standard checklist. “We ask about the data flow—what information will be collected, where it is coming from, and where it is going—as well as the data carrier,” details Rick Seibert, vice president of process engineering. Adds Mayer: “We need to look at the impact these systems will have on the trade package. There is a tremendous amount of SOPs [standard operating procedures] that need to be developed. And there is an impact on operations.” Investments in machinery and software and related installation are often needed and should be discussed as early as possible, Mayer says.

For instance, sophisticated drug manufacturers may already have enterprise resource planning systems in place equipped for item serialization, and they may just transmit data back and forth between Sharp into their Electronic Product Code Information System (EPCIS). Small- and mid-sized companies, however, may want Sharp to handle the entire data-generating and data-handling processes—serial number management as well as pedigree transmission.

Mayer says that any potential new technology must be compatible with that of existing partners. For instance, Sharp is using Systech’s Packaging Execution System for serialization and SupplyScape for pedigree generation. “Working with partners, we already have standards in place,” says Mayer. “For instance, if Systech has already written an interface to a particular device or service provider, we try to avoid introducing hardware that would require additional development time and resources.”

To help customers determine the ideal packaging operation, Sharp is using its production floor as a demo lab, says Mayer. The contract packager sees three scenarios: a bottling line with item and bundle serialization; a cartoning line called the Flex Line able to handle blisters, pouches, trays, and kits packaged into cartons with item serialization; and dedicated lines made up of equipment for specific customers. Lines would be equipped with technology for aggregating numbers to track parent-to-child relationships. The first two packaging lines are built to be configurable to be used by multiple customers for multiple products. The dedicated line would feature fixed engineering designs for single projects.

Sharp has three projects under way for two drug company customers. By November, the Flex Line will be running item-level cartons serialized with both RFID and 2-D bar codes with further serialization up to the pallet. A dedicated line is currently being specified and is targeted to be running by the first or second quarter of 2009. The third project, currently unspecified, is targeted for the second quarter of 2009.

Seibert and Mayer are realistic about the costs of serialization. “Getting data onto the package is half the battle—it costs $300,000 to $600,000 per line just for serialization,” says Mayer. “That doesn’t include the additions necessary to IT infrastructures to handle data flow.”

However, Seibert says that Sharp is “looking to approach serialization in a more cost-effective manner by spreading costs over multiple lines. The more customers that use us like a depot, the more cost-effective serialization can be.”

With the delay in California’s electronic pedigree deadline (as of press time the date was January 1, 2011, for full compliance), Seibert says that new customer interest has slowed down a bit. “We are using the lull to develop solutions for our forward-thinking customers,” he says.

Mayer says he is using the time to look at other packaging line investments, namely the Blister Express Center from Uhlmann Packaging Systems.

Seibert adds that he is looking at serialization as an enabler for other possibilities, such as gathering regimen compliance and adherence data. “It is a missing market,” says Seibert. “Serialization could give manufacturers an idea of what specific regimens are working.”

Until such realization drives adoption, Seibert offers advice similar to that of other serialization providers: “Book early and stay ahead of schedule. The closer we get to pedigree deadlines, the more scarce the industry capacity.”

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