Ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID could be just what the doctor ordered for the pharmaceutical industry. A pair of studies conducted in November proved that UHF has the necessary capabilities for tracking products moving through the pharmaceutical supply chain, including the ability to overcome interference from both liquids and metal.
At the RFID Health Care Industry Adoption Summit held in November in Washington, D.C., Impinj and the HealthCare Packaging Division of Owens-Illinois conducted live demonstrations of a UHF Gen 2 system they have developed that's capable of reading and writing tags on pharmaceutical bottles at high speeds with 100 percent reliability. In the first demo, the system programmed 96- bit EPC numbers at rates exceeding 600 tags per minute on bottles containing the four most common dose types—liquids, gel caps, solids and powder.
In the second demo, the system read 600 tags per minute on cases containing 48 individually tagged bottles and a case-level tag. Many pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Wyeth, use high-frequency (HF) RFID for itemlevel tagging and UHF for tagging cases and pallets.
"These results are a true breakthrough in item-level RFID implementation," says Michael Liard, principal analyst in ABI Research's RFID practice. "The demonstrations validate that a near-field UHF RFID solution exists and that it provides remarkable performance and reliability."
In addition, Cardinal Health recently announced results of a nine-month pilot program launched last February to test the feasibility of using UHF RFID technology for tracking and tracing at the unit, case and pallet levels.
Cardinal stuck RFID tags on the labels of brand-name solid-dose prescription drugs, then encoded the EPC standard data on those tags during the packaging process. The products were shipped to a Cardinal Health DC in Findlay, Ohio, where the data were collected and authenticated as workers handled products under typical operating conditions. From Findlay, the tagged product was sent to a pharmacy, where further tests of read rates and data flow were conducted.
Data from the pilot indicate that it is indeed feasible for RFID tags to be inlaid into existing FDA-approved pharmaceutical label stock, and that tags can be applied and encoded on packaging lines at normal operating speeds. Online encoding yields were 95 percent to 97 percent, and fine tuning of the process is expected to produce yields that approach 100 percent.
Cardinal Health executives note that although the overall test results were positive, there are some hurdles to overcome before the UHF RFID tracking technology can be adopted industry-wide. The challenges include achieving case-level reads in excess of 99 percent at all case-reading stations and achieving unit-level read rates in excess of 99 percent when reading from tote containers at the DC and pharmacy locations.
2007 is shaping up to be a big year for RFID in the retail sector. Industry sources say that Wal-Mart is getting ready to roll out its RFID program to another 700 vendors, although the retailer hasn't officially announced the decision yet. Speculation is that Wal- Mart will give these vendors nine months to comply, so that they'll be ready to start shipping tagged cases and pallets in time for the 2007 holiday season.
Wal-Mart has an additional 300 suppliers preparing to come online with RFID this month, which would bring the number of participating vendors to approximately 637 (some vendors not required to tag their merchandise have volunteered for the effort, while others have been granted extensions). Within 12 months, Wal-Mart could have more than 1,200 of its suppliers either shipping RFID-tagged cases and pallets or getting ready to do so.
Wal-Mart isn't the only retailer pushing ahead with RFID, however. Sources also say that grocery chain Kroger has begun discussions with its major suppliers to see how many are ready to apply RFID tags to their products. It appears that Ahold USA, whose subsidiaries include Stop & Shop, Tops Markets and Giant Food, is about to jump in the game as well. Speaking at the RFID Health Care Industry Adoption Summit held in Washington, D.C., in November, Leslie Hand, the global director of RFID strategy at Ahold USA, confirmed that Ahold's U.S. grocery operation will expand its RFID pilot this year.