Information technology

RFID tags tested in tracking medicines in  supply chain

28 November 2006

Dublin, Ohio, USA. Cardinal Health, Inc., has completed a real-world pilot test of RFID tags for automatic tracking of medicines in the packaging and distribution chain. The technology has the potential to improve the safety and efficiency of pharmaceutical supply chains.

The pilot program tested whether ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio frequency identification (RFID) tags could be applied, encoded and read at normal production speeds during packaging and distribution of pharmaceuticals. Verifying the authenticity of medications along each step of the distribution process adds an additional layer of security to lessen the chance of counterfeit pharmaceuticals entering the supply chain. It is also hoped that RFID data could make the supply process more efficient.

"Cardinal Health's test of RFID under real-world conditions has demonstrated that the technology has real promise to provide an added layer of safety," said Renard Jackson, vice president and general manager of global packaging services for Cardinal Health. "While our pilot demonstrated that using UHF RFID technology at the unit, case & pallet level is feasible for track and trace purposes, a great deal of additional work needs to be undertaken by stakeholders across the industry to address significant challenges including global standards, privacy concerns and the safe handling of biologics. Until those challenges are addressed, direct distribution of medicine continues to be the best near-term approach to maintain the highest levels of security and efficiency in the pharmaceutical supply chain."

RFID labelling and online encoding

Data collected from the pilot suggest that it is feasible for RFID tags to be inlaid into existing FDA-approved pharmaceutical label stock, and the tags can be applied and encoded on packaging lines at normal operational speeds. Online encoding yields were 95% to 97% and fine tuning of the process is expected to produce yields that approach 100 percent. The RFID tag application and encoding requires minimal adjustments to current labelling and packaging lines.

RFID read rates

Unit-level read rate data varied widely depending on the locations and type of reading stations throughout the supply chain. Highly reliable unit-level read rates in excess of 96% were found when reading individual cases one at a time and when reading units mixed with other products in tote containers prepared for delivery to a pharmacy. However, as expected, unit-level read rates were not found to be reliable when attempting to read units within a full pallet of product.

While not 100% in all situations, case-level data were found to be more reliable during full pallet reads. The combination of business process changes, and further hardware tuning is expected to improve the reliability of case tag reads to 100%. However, further tests are needed to prove this hypothesis.

In preparation for delivery to the pharmacy, individual bottles are "picked" and placed in tote containers with other products that did not have RFID tags. The unit-level read rates from the tote containers being read during the quality control phase were acceptable for track and trace. Additional unit-level read rates while the product was in the tote containers were not found to be reliable during subsequent reading stations at the shipping dock of the distribution centre and the receiving doors at the pharmacy.

Pilot program read rate data

Cardinal Health's RFID pilot program tested many different possible reading stations throughout the supply chain. While the company expected that some reading stations would not achieve acceptable read rates, the lack of hard data in the marketplace led program planners to measure all possible scenarios.

RFID Pilot Program Conclusions Overall data collected by Cardinal Health supports the theory that RFID technology using UHF as a single frequency at the unit, case and pallet levels is feasible for track and trace. However, several challenges remain before it can be adopted industry-wide. Some of those challenges include:

  • Technology and process improvements to achieve:
    • Case-level reads in excess of 99% at all case reading stations;
    • Unit-level read rates in excess of 99% when reading from tote containers at the distribution centre and pharmacy locations;
  • Allowing unit-level "inference" to become acceptable practice in the normal distribution process at stages where unit-level read rates are unreliable, but case level reads approach 100%;
  • Barcode technology to be used as complementary and redundant technology to RFID;
  • Management of the cost impact to implement and sustain the technology; and
  • Improved collaboration across the industry to identify opportunities to significantly improve efficiency.

Pilot program background

In conducting the industry's first end-to-end pilot program, Cardinal Health used new technology to place RFID tags on the labels of brand-name solid-dose prescription drugs, then encoded the electronic product code (EPC) standard data at the unit, case and pallet levels during the packaging process. The products were shipped to a Cardinal Health distribution centre in Findlay, Ohio, where the data was read and authenticated as products were handled under typical operating conditions. Normal procedures were enhanced with RFID hardware and software from Alien Technology Corporation and IBM along with project management support from VeriSign.

From Findlay, the tagged product was sent to a pharmacy to further test read rates and data flow using the same technology as the distribution centre. The product dispensed to patients was not in the RFID packaging.

The company launched the pilot in February and completed the test this autumn. In addition, Cardinal Health is working with Pfizer on a separate RFID pilot to authenticate Viagra shipments at its Findlay facility.

To top

To top