Pharma’s RFID debate not going away, as UHF mounts comeback

Some interesting thoughts from an interview today with Daniel Deavours, head of the RFID Alliance Lab at the University of Kansas. If you've been following the adoption of RFID in the pharmaceutical industry, you're familiar with the HF vs. UHF debate--that is, which radio frequency, high (13.56 MHz) or ultra high (915 MHz), works best for pharmaceutical applications, particularly at the item (bottle, vial or blister pack) level. The argument had pretty much been settled, it seemed, as consensus built in favor of HF and Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and others decided to go with HF in their new pilots. HF, in particular, is thought to have better "read rates," particularly around metals (such as blister foils) and liquids (such as parenteral products). And there are plenty of questions regarding the impact that UHF currents might have on the product itself. Case closed? Not exactly. Lately, Impinj has been promoting a technology called near-field UHF, while others (such as Symbol Technologies) continue to develop better, more sensitive UHF tags and equipment. Deavours at Kansas has been working with UHF for some time, and has developed a UHF tag that, in tests at least, works well in the vicinity of metals and liquids. It's too large and expensive for item-level implementation right now, he says, but that's the next project. What Deavours finds interesting about all this is that, in his view, the UHF/HF debate is heating up once again--an indication that the pharmaceutical industry may be doomed to a hybrid environment akin to the early days of videocassette recorders, in which both Beta and VHS were popular. It's nice to have options, he says, but the fragmented market will make for higher costs and lower efficiencies for drug manufacturers implementing serious RFID programs. "There are benefits to the benevolent dictator model," he told me, suggesting that industry standards--which don't seem likely at this point--might do a lot of good in the long term. I'll be discussing these and other issues related to RFID and drug packaging in June's Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. In the meantime, learn more about Deavours' work and the new Adamas UHF tag at the RFID Alliance Lab. And an update (5/17/06): IDTechEx has just released a technical assessment of near-field UHF vs. HF for item-level tagging. -- PWT