Cardinal Bets on UHF

Believe it or not, the success of item-level UHF may depend on shrink-wrapping, says Cardinal’s Renard Jackson.

By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

There are a couple things that make Cardinal Health’s (Dublin, Ohio) current RFID pilot project different. For one thing, it’s an end-to-end pilot, with Cardinal maintaining oversight of individual product bottles from filling and final packaging all the way to the retailer. For another, it’s an operational pilot, run at production speeds with the expectation of getting RFID read rates that are acceptable within the marketplace. Other notable item-level pilots have been able to do one of these or the other, but not both successfully at the same time.

What makes Cardinal’s project, which began in January and will conclude in August, a bit more intriguing is that it bucks conventional wisdom that says high frequency (HF) RFID tags are the only surefire technology for proper item-level tracking and authentication of product. Both Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline have recently pledged allegiance to HF; Cardinal is even partnering with Pfizer on its Viagra pilot.

Alien Technology Gen 2 Omni-Squiggle RFID tag
Alien Technology's "Omni-Squiggle" UHF Gen 2 tag.

But this latest pilot has Cardinal putting essential product dates and lot numbers on Alien “Gen 2” ultra high frequency (UHF) tags. Smaller (1- by 1-inch) tags are being applied to labels of the 90- and 100-count bottles being used, and larger UHF tags for the cases and pallets. It will be interesting to see if Cardinal can succeed and, if it does, if this success will engender a significant shift in conventional thought about the viability of UHF tags for item-level tagging.

Using UHF tags at the item level is not something Cardinal would have attempted with first generation technologies, says Renard Jackson, Cardinal’s executive VP of packaging services. But from what he’s seen thus far, Gen 2s will work, he believes.

The clear benefit in using only UHF tags is that the scenario requires a single reader infrastructure, making things simpler, and cheaper, for manufacturers and their supply-chain partners. “Building a dual-frequency infrastructure is expensive,” Jackson says. “We made the decision early on to stick to one frequency in order to stick with one infrastructure.” While cost may not be a major factor for the Pfizers and GSKs of the world, it is for generics makers and smaller and mid-size brand-name drug manufacturers, says Jackson.

The proof will be in the pilot, and so far, so good, says Jackson. “In testing, we’re getting the read rates we’re looking for at the unit, case and pallet level using Gen 2 tags.” In previous tests, Gen 1 tags showed read success rates just over 80%, he says. When the final Gen 2 statistics are known, he expects rates between 95% and 100%.

A knock against using UHF for the item level has been that UHF readers often cannot read tagged labels deep within cases as they are stacked on pallets. Purdue Pharma had this issue with its Oxycontin pilot, and it’s a key reason Pfizer has stayed away from UHF.

The shrink-wrapping process may offer a solution, Jackson says. Cardinal will take readings of item-, case- and pallet-level tags as the cases are being shrink-wrapped. A standard wrapping operation will rotate the cases eight to 12 times, Jackson notes, offering multiple angles and opportunities for the UHF readers to interrogate tags deep within the boxes. Cardinal will also attempt to read the item-level tags as the pallets enter its wholesale distribution facility, which will serve as an effective control against which to compare the validity of the readings taken during shrink-wrapping.

The Cardinal pilot begins in its Moorestown, N.J. facility, where the Alien 915-MHz tags are applied to labels. The labels are shipped across the river to a Philadelphia site, where they are attached to bottles of two unnamed oral-dosage products, one generic and one prescription, being used in the pilot. The bottles are sealed, encoded with EPC data and read before being packed in cases. As mentioned, they are placed in cases and again read during the shrink-wrap procedure. They then proceed on to the distribution center in Findlay, Ohio, where they are read within their cases, then unpacked down to the unit level, placed in plastic totes with other products, and sent through a UHF reader portal for yet another interrogation. The totes of tagged and untagged products then travel to the warehouse of one of Cardinal’s retail partners for a final reading. There will be no attempts to read the bottles at pharmacies, Jackson notes, due to consumer privacy issues.

This shipping cycle that began over the past few months should end late this summer, Jackson notes, at which time the company will thoroughly analyze its data, determine successes and failures and, in September, issue a report to its partners, FDA and the entire industry.  

Cardinal is consulting with Verisign on the project, as well as with IBM, whose middleware it is using. Electronic-pedigree software is not currently part of the pilot, but Cardinal has selected an application vendor, Jackson says, and will announce its pedigree intentions later this year.

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