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RFID Brings Further Automation to Mail-Order Pharmacy

The introduction of RFID is expected to reduce errors during the picking and packing process by 99 percent.
By Beth Bacheldor
Nov 07, 2006Knapp Logistics & Automation, the U.S. division of global distribution and logistics company Knapp Logistik Automation, has teamed up with RFID hardware manufacturer Escort Memory Systems to provide one of its customers, a mail-order pharmacy, with an RFID solution designed to track and fill prescriptions more efficiently.

Knapp manages the packaging and distribution operations for the mail-order pharmacy, filling orders and shipping them out to individual patients. The pharmacy asked not to be identified, according to Escort Memory Systems' marketing manager, Bradley Todd.

The puck (a plastic container that holds the empty bottle as it travels along the conveyer) utilizes Knapp's EMS high-frequency (HF) RFID-enabled systems.

The solution consists of Knapp's EMS high-frequency (HF) RFID-enabled systems, built to ensure that automated dispensers fill individual bottles with the correct pills, and that filled bottles are accurately placed in totes moving the bottles down the conveyor system.

The RFID system—which includes 13.56 MHz HF tags and readers, network interfaces and cabling—was installed at Knapp's distribution center in an unspecified city in Kansas. According to Todd, installation began last April, with the system going in September.

The system labels each individual bottle with a bar code and the patient's name. The bottles are then placed into a puck, a plastic container that holds the empty containers as they travel along the conveyer. Each puck has an EMS' 250S RFID tag affixed to it. The tag complies with the ISO 15693 standard. It has 112 bytes of read-write memory and contains both an ID associated with the bar-code label on the empty bottle, and prescription information associated with a particular order and customer stored in a database.

The conveyor moves each puck and empty bottle along to an individual pill dispenser, which utilizes an RFID interrogator to read the tag on the puck and automatically fills the bottle with the correct prescription. The conveyor then moves the filled prescription bottle to a review station, where a pharmacist double-checks the order. Next, the system moves the puck with the filled bottle onto the tote line, where it removes the bottle from the puck and drops it into a plastic container called a tote. The tote has an RFID tag affixed to its bottom, its tag ID number associated with the patient's order. Each tote contains only one patient's order, but that could include multiple medications.

Correlation among the RFID tags ensures accuracy: The RFID tag on the tote is associated with the RFID tag on the puck, which, in turn, is associated with the bar-code label on the bottle. As reads occur, the numbers are correlated in the back-end database.

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