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Vue Brings UHF Item-Level RFID to Pharmacies

Vue Technology today announced a solution for item-level tagging in retail pharmacies that uses UHF RFID. Based on the existing TrueVUE RFID platform, the solution represents what the company claims is the first UHF item-level tagging solution for pharmacies.
Nov 13, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

November 13, 2006—Today at the NACDS RFID Healthcare Industry Adoption Summit in Washington, DC, Vue Technology announced a solution for item-level tagging in retail pharmacies that uses standard Gen2 RFID. Based on the existing TrueVUE RFID platform, the solution represents what the company claims is the first UHF item-level tagging solution for pharmacies.

The TrueVUE platform is Vue's flagship technology. It is an end-to-end item-level tagging solution for retail environments comprising RFID hardware and software. Vue retrofits a retailer's existing shelf infrastructure with RFID antennas, readers, switches, and routers, which is all networked to the software component that manages the devices. The software also provides tools to realize the oft-touted benefits of item-level visibility, such as decreased inventory and out-of-stocks (OOS). Given the health and pricing considerations unique to pharmaceuticals, there are even more item-level tagging benefits to pharmacies than to a retailer of lower-maintenance goods. Expiration notification, automated ordering notification, automated recall management, e-pedigree, and counterfeit diversion detection are examples.

The significance of today's announcement by Vue is not just the introduction of a pharmacy-specific version of their solution. It is the fact that the solution is based on ultrahigh frequency, or UHF, the same flavor of RFID being adopted across the supply chain and retailing establishment. Historically, it was assumed that UHF technology would not function sufficiently well for use in item-level pharmaceutical applications because its performance was vulnerable to interference by metal and liquids, materials that are common in pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical packaging (think liquid gelcaps packaged in foil blister packs). Complicating matters further is the density of product; pharmaceuticals have relatively small form factors and are often tightly packed on pharmacy shelves, making it challenging for an RFID reader to identify which tagged goods are within its prescribed read field and not in a neighboring reader's field.

Thus, the fact that Vue's solution uses UHF means the company has overcome many of these issues. "We can now read water, blister packs, gels, and everything else on the shelf," Vue CEO Robert Locke told RFID Update. In doing so, the company has introduced the possibility for retail pharmacies to use the same Gen2 technology that is being adopted across the non-pharmaceutical supply chain. "By delivering the proven benefits of item-level RFID to the pharmacy using standard UHF technologies, Vue has now made it possible for a chain drugstore to standardize store-wide inventory tracking on a single RFID infrastructure," said Locke.

Locke noted that the solution does not rely on the near field UHF technology that has received considerable attention this year as an option for item-level Gen2 tagging. He emphasized that it works with commonly available off-the-shelf Gen2 tags.

The technology's innovations relate more to the area of antenna design than to that of tags or readers. Determining how best to equip metal shelves with reader antennas is no small feat, according to Locke. In addition to simply making the technology behave correctly in a densely packed, high-metal/high-liquid environment, the cabling and antennas must be relatively inconspicuous. "Without exception, they want their shelves to look exactly like they did before installing the RFID infrastructure," Locke said of retailers. Vue has focused heavily on advancing its technology in this respect, and has been able to improve both the ratio of cables-to-antennas (one cable to every 14 to 16 antennas) as well as antennas-to-readers (1,000+ antennas to one reader). These advancements mean that the infrastructure is not only less noticeable to shoppers, the lighter hardware footprint is also cheaper and easier to install. Locke said that they could fully equip a retail pharmacy as quickly as overnight.

Another key characteristic on which Vue has focused is scalability. For mass retail pharmacies to actually adopt, it must be deployable across many thousands of locations. It must also be relatively painless to troubleshoot. If a reader malfunctions, asserted Locke, fixing it should not require a visit from a technician. Vue's solution would allow a non-technical store employee to "hot swap" a reader, unplugging the broken one and plugging in a new one. The rest of the reader network would remain operational, and the software would seamlessly recognize and configure the new device.

It is Vue's long study of the countless vagaries of real world retail environments that differentiate it, according to Locke. Adding RFID readers to shelves is but one small piece of the overall solution, he said. "We are an RF networking company, not a smart shelf company." To that end, the company has invested five years and $25 million in mastering item-level tagging exclusively. Much has gone into its software platform, which allows the remote management and diagnostics of an entire multi-location item-level deployment. For example, a retail pharmacy could remotely view the activity and status of a single, far-off reader from its central headquarters. Locke noted that Vue has some clients using their software to manage dock door and distribution center RFID deployments.

Vue Technology was formed as a division of the ventures group at packaging giant MeadWestvaco. The division was purchased last year by venture capital firms Partech International and Canaan Partners, who renamed it and set it up as an independent company (see RFID Venture Purchased by VCs). Vue has always positioned itself as a pure item-level tagging firm, and its client list includes a who's-who of A-list early adopters, including Best Buy, Tesco, CVS, and Procter & Gamble (see Vue RFID Platform Chosen by Procter & Gamble).

Read the announcement from Vue Technology
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