RFID tracking system tags drugs at item level

February 5, 2007

In a move that could significantly improve the monitoring and tracking of retail drugs, RFID (radio frequency identification) solution providers have developed an inventory tracking system for the pharmaceutical industry that uses ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags.

The new technology has been anxiously awaited. According to Ron Bone, senior VP of distribution support at McKesson, the new tags will be used with the ongoing On Track system that is being utilized by a consortium of companies to use RFID to track pharmaceuticals in a real-world environment. In addition, AmerisourceBergen is waiting for the new UHF RFID protocol before rolling out its Track and Trace pilot program in May.

RFID technology has been around for several years and has been touted as a key step in improving security and increasing speed in the pharmacy supply chain. RFID tags are small computer chips that can be used to replace bar codes on individual items or larger pallet shipments. The technology received a major boost when Wal-Mart announced it wanted its top suppliers to move exclusively to RFID. Unlike the ubiquitous bar code, RFID tags are computer chips that can store a significant amount of data and can transmit those data to readers that can be inches, feet, or even yards away from the actual tag. RFID is already in use for wireless payment systems like the ExxonMobil Speedpass and for automatically paying tolls on many highways.

A new protocol

Last year, about half a dozen vendors teamed up to advocate the use of UHF technology for item-level tagging of pharmaceutical products. The companies, which included ADT/Tyco Fire & Security, Alien Technology, Impinj, Intel, Symbol Technologies, and Xterprise, cowrote a paper that said UHF outperforms HF (high frequency) at the item level and is the "right choice" for enterprise-level RFID applications in the pharmaceutical industry.

The paper contradicts a March 2006 report from ODIN technologies which concluded, after various tests, that HF tags outperform UHF tags.

"The industry has long thought that the only way you can utilize RFID [tags] is through high frequency," said Gordon Adams, senior VP of sales for Vue Technology. "There are technological challenges with using UHF for RFID purposes. Liquids and metals are very hard on RF-one absorbs RF, the other blocks it. Our technology can work with either UHF or HF."

According to Adams, the tracking system, touted by Vue Technology as "a major breakthrough," settles the debate among RFID users and vendors over the effectiveness of UHF RFID technology in pharmaceutical applications. Both UHF and HF tags have been tested and deployed in the pharmaceutical industry, and conflicting reports have touted the benefits of the two technologies.

Vue's item-level tagging solution is based on its TrueVUE RFID Platform. It works by reading the data on RFID tags attached to pharmaceutical products and transmitting the data through reader antennas embedded in pharmacy shelves, countertops, and receiving stations. The technology leverages Gen II UHF tags from popular suppliers and standard Gen II readers to track any pharmaceutical product, from liquids and pill bottles to blister packs or gels.