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Major RFID Innovation for Pharma Item-Level Tagging

Packaging giant O-I has devised a method of embedding RFID inlays into pharmaceutical packaging for each of the four typical pharmaceutical dosage forms: solids, gelcaps, powders, and liquids. In addition, the solution works with either HF or UHF, enabling O-I clients to elect whichever technology best suits their needs.
Nov 14, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

November 14, 2006—Packaging giant O-I (previously Owens-Illinois) is demonstrating an innovation in item-level RFID tagging for pharmaceuticals at the NACDS RFID Healthcare Industry Adoption Summit in Washington, DC. The company has devised a method of embedding RFID inlays into pharmaceutical packaging for each of the four typical pharmaceutical dosage forms: solids, gelcaps, powders, and liquids. In addition, the solution works with either high frequency (HF) or ultrahigh frequency (UHF) RFID, enabling O-I clients -- leading drug manufacturers like Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Abbott -- to elect whichever technology best suits their needs.

O-I is a $7.2-billion, world-leading packaging manufacturer that the pharmaceutical industry (among others) relies on as an outsourced provider of drug packaging. Put simply, O-I makes the bottles and other containers in which drugs are distributed. O-I pharma clients will now be able to purchase RFID item-level tagging as a feature of that same outsourced service. During the package manufacturing process, O-I will mould an inlay into the bottom of each bottle.

Contrast this to the standard method, in which the RFID inlay is affixed to the bottle as a separate label.

The integration of RFID into product packaging has long been expected, albeit not for a few more years. This manufacturing technology from O-I represents a major step toward that end. "This service just further validates the possibility of integrated RFID," ABI Research's Mike Liard commented to RFID Update. "The whole concept that 'the package is the tag' is very compelling."

The seamless RFID integration for track-and-trace is one benefit of O-I's new offering. Another is security; the embedded tags are tamper-resistant and tamper-evident. Yet another is flexibility between HF and UHF RFID. Given the market's ongoing disagreement about which of the two frequencies is a superior choice for pharma item-level tagging, O-I sought to accommodate both. "We are frequency flexible," O-I's Brian Chisholm told RFID Update. "We don't have a preference for either one. It's whatever the customers need for their preferred packaging."

Despite O-I's neutral posture, the results of its demo in DC were not so balanced: UHF was dramatically faster.

There were 100 tagged bottles setup in single file on a conveyor, all passing by a guardrail-mounted RFID reader. As the bottles passed, the reader encoded the embedded tags, then reread them to verify that the encoded information was correct. The scenario was done for both HF and UHF.

For HF, the bottles could be processed at about 110 bottles per minute. In addition, the bottles had to be spaced ten inches apart to yield 100% reliability. For UHF, the bottles could be processed at a rate of 500 to 600 bottles per minute, without any spacing required between them. As Chisholm said, "The demonstration paints a stark contrast between the two technologies."

Whether the results will sway those in the HF camp remains to be seen; after all, it was just one demo. But judging by the direction of attendee focus at the presentation, the disparity in performance will at the very least spur increased interest in UHF. "There was much more interest in the UHF side from attendees, folks like Target," observed ABI's Liard.

O-I ran a second demo as well, which focused on reading item-level tags packaged within cases. They ran cases containing 48 individually-tagged bottles and a case-level tag through an RFID reader portal. Here the difference between HF and UHF was less pronounced.

In both demos, O-I was achieving 100% read rates, which Chisholm emphasized is a must for any pharmaceutical packaging solution. "The issue that pharma manufacturers are very interested in is the six sigma readability of their tags," said Chisholm. "They need a very high level of performance." Such high performance was a key feature of the demo. While the difference in speed between HF and UHF was undeniable and attention-grabbing, O-I was most interested in demonstrating the extremely high reliability it can attain from either technology.

The HF inlays used in the demo were provided by TAGSYS, the UHF inlays by RSI ID Technologies using silicon chips and antenna designs from Impinj. The UHF inlays were near-field UHF, a flavor of RFID which Impinj has championed for item-level tagging. "The O-I demonstrations validate that a near-field UHF RFID solution exists and that it provides remarkable performance and reliability," said Liard.

O-I has not released pricing for the new solution because there has not yet been an official evaluation by any O-I clients. Indeed, part of O-I's mission at the conference was to enlist a customer for exactly that, according to Chisholm. "Our goal now is to find an evaluation partner to ramp our production capability so we can understand the true cost of this and provide accurate pricing to our customers."

And on that he was optimistic. "So far the response has been very, very positive for this solution. In a very short period of time, early Q1 of next year, we should have production capacity to run hundreds of thousands or millions of samples."
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