Technology has invaded the sacred grounds of the Vatican Library in Rome. Faced with a growing problem of misplaced books, library administrators have turned to RFID tags to identify and manage the nearly two million books and manuscripts stored within its walls. Rome-based systems integrator Seret s.r.l. has tagged almost half of the 120,000-plus volumes that line the library's public reading rooms.
Prior to the RFID solution, a mis-shelved item was as good as lost. "When one book [was] put in the wrong place, it was as if it [were] gone for good," library vice perfect Ambrogio Piazzoni told the Catholic News Service. But those days are over. Now each shelf is equipped with an RFID tag containing a list of the volumes that should be stored there. Using handheld RFID readers, library staff can double-check that the correct books are stored in the right order on the proper shelf. If not, an alarm sounds on the reader, signaling an error.
The new system is also helping staffers maximize use of floor space: Once the technology's in place, says Piazzoni, "we will be able to tell how often a book gets taken off the shelf to be consulted. This way a book that rarely gets looked at can be put in the back rooms to free up space for a more requested item."
Even the inventory process has been streamlined. Before it adopted the system—which uses RFID tags from Texas Instruments—the library was forced to close for a month each year to verify its contents. When the tagging is complete, a full inventory will take just 12 hours.
Wal-Mart and the Defense Department may get all the headlines—at least when it comes to RFID mandates. But their decrees aren't the only ones with far-reaching effects on U.S. business. Though few are aware of it, the Food & Drug Administration has launched an aggressive push of its own to get pharmaceutical companies up and running with radio-frequency identification technology.
While Wal-Mart and the DOD are intent on saving money, the FDA has an entirely different agenda: foiling drug counterfeiters. The FDA believes that RFID tracking can help keep counterfeit drugs from slipping into the U.S. supply chain, avoiding problems widely reported elsewhere in the world. Today, the FDA estimates that nearly half the drugs used in some countries are counterfeit.
The agency's not wasting any time. The FDA's initial RFID timeline, released by its Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force last year, calls for drugs that carry the highest risk of counterfeiting to be tagged at the pallet, case and even item level by 2005. By late 2007, the FDA would like to see most pharmaceuticals tagged at the item level.
So far, the agency has received very little flak. Unlike manufacturers in the consumer-goods and food industries, pharmaceutical manufacturers stand to see clear benefits from using RFID tags, says a new study by ARC Advisory Group. Not only will they enjoy the usual advantages—improved visibility, a reduced need for manual handling, greater shipment accuracy—but the technology will also provide a means for drug companies to track and trace their products in compliance with federal regulations.
"[P]harmaceutical manufacturers can easily justify using passive tags all the way down to the item level on the basis of tracking and tracing requirements," says Chantal Polsonetti, a vice president with ARC and author of RFID Systems in the Manufacturing Supply Chain. Polsonetti adds that the high cost of RFID tags presents less of an obstacle to the high-margin pharmaceutical business than it does for grocers and discount retailers, who say tag prices must drop to 5 cents apiece to justify their expense.
Before the pharmaceutical industry can proceed with RFID tags, it must first determine what effect—if any—the technology will have on certain types of drugs once a tag is activated and begins to emit radio waves. In the meantime, the industry will continue to use bar codes, tamper-proof packaging and hidden inks in addition to RFID to deter counterfeiting.
All this should come as good news to vendors of RFID tags and reading equipment. The ARC study says the available market for RFID in the pharmaceutical sector alone is 12 billion units in North America and 30 billion units worldwide.