Track & Trace: RFID Could Be the Future, but Is It Too Long to Wait?

RFID shows tremendous promise in tracking and tracing products through the supply chain. But it’s not the only technology out there.

Gregg Metcalf, Industry Market Manager, Nosco Security Protection, Nosco, Inc.

Gregg Metcalf

Track and trace, as it pertains to keeping drugs safe and secure, is the manner in which products can be finger-printed throughout the distribution network. Simply put, this means that a specific product carries a tracking pedigree from the point of manufacture to the final point of sale to consumers.

Protecting drugs and devices from counterfeiting and diversion includes protecting the supply chain from fake products entering the intended supply chain and protecting valid products from exiting the intended supply chain. Unfortunately, counterfeiting and diversion methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated, enabled by new technology and driven by the realities of the profit to be gained.

Therefore, protecting consumers and maintaining control over the overall distribution chain is a significant challenge that must be met head-on by manufacturers. With all of these challenges, not to mention the ever-present threat of terrorists somehow striking the supply chain, drug makers are left asking themselves: How can we accomplish such a daunting task?

RFID’s High Expectations

Unfortunately, within the security technology sector, we don’t seem to have a magic bullet. However, with that being said, radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a promising technology that develops a pedigree at points throughout the supply chain. Those points can then be monitored to alert whether a valid product is where it should be, and RFID can be used to identify whether or not a valid pedigree is missing. The technology is being supported by FDA and a number of reputable technology providers. There are, however, significant limitations to the technology today, including cost, competing international standards, privacy concerns, and a variety of technology barriers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as excited about the technology as the next guy, but are expectations too high? More and more, I’m being asked by manufacturers, “What can I do today?” With the commitment being made by FDA and technology providers, these challenges will likely be overcome during the next several years. However, with the number of counterfeiting and diversion occurrences on the rise, is that too long to wait? My answer is yes. There are options available today that can be implemented immediately as a transitional strategy for manufacturers to eventually embrace RFID’s potential. One answer can be found using today’s mass serialization technologies.

Mass Serialization

Nosco’s folding cartons, pressure-sensitive labels, and other packaging components have multiple security features.

Mass serialization is available now and is being used in several ways to prevent counterfeiting and to track and trace products within a distribution network. One example is the use of sequential numeric codes. Another serialization technique, which has an element of built-in security, is the use of randomly generated serial numbers obtained from a security technology provider. These numbers are delivered to the brand owner usually through the company’s drug or device packaging, including labels and folding cartons. In this case, the random number also serves as an authenticating feature. The likelihood of a counterfeiter guessing a 12-digit code, for example, is extremely low—essentially impossible. At established points in the distribution network, the code is verified against a database of authentic codes.

Mass serialization numbers can be printed stand-alone or they can be incorporated into existing bar codes. The bar code option allows numbers to be authenticated throughout a distribution channel similar to the RFID process. As it is read, the bar code-enabled database begins developing the electronic pedigree for the product as it moves its way through established points within the distribution process. The brand owner can access information to determine whether the product is at the correct point at any given time. Additionally, mass serialization technology allows the brand owner to restrict the number of times a product can be authenticated. This allows the product to follow a set pattern of activations throughout distribution.

Authentication is not only limited to within the distribution network but can also be done at the consumer level. In this case, the consumer enters the code using the Internet or a telephone to ensure that the product is genuine. In either case, if multiple hits of the same number occur, then you know you may have a problem within the supply chain.

A Layered Approach

As we are all aware, FDA’s recommendation for the industry is to layer security technologies together to prevent counterfeiting. For anyone using mass serialization, I also recommend layering with any of a variety of authenticating features, such as color-shifting ink, taggants, optical variable devices (OVDs, including security holograms), or optical watermarks, to name a few. These overt and covert technologies can also be used in conjunction with RFID. The more technologies that are in place, and periodically rotated, the more likely a counterfeiter would be discouraged from an attempt to duplicate the package, or try to generate a fake pedigree. The fact still remains that even with RFID, brand owners are going to need more than one option to fight counterfeiting. RFID, along with mass serialization and the other technologies mentioned, give brand owners an excellent choice for protecting their brand image in the marketplace.

Over the next several years, RFID technology is going to help reshape the security industry as a whole. My recommendation? Don’t wait for that to happen. There are alternative solutions available to get you started today. These alternatives may very well help pave the way for your company to fully embrace RFID when the time is right.

Gregg Metcalf is industry market manager for Nosco Security Protection. With 20 years of printed packaging and security technology experience, Metcalf works with pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to better understand, select, and implement security technologies to help protect their supply chain. He also works closely with leading security technology providers to bring new products and services to market. To learn more about mass serialization, RFID, and the available range of anticounterfeiting technologies, contact Metcalf at 704/596-8086 or at


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