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Pfizer Manager Discusses the Viagra RFID Pilot

A few weeks ago RFID Update published a contributed article from Pfizer that revealed key data and findings from the giant drug maker's RFID pilot to tag all bottles of Viagra sold in the US. This follow-up article discusses what Pfizer manager Tim Marsh thinks the pilot indicates about RFID and the pharmaceutical supply chain.
Jun 04, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

June 4, 2007—A few weeks ago RFID Update published Viagra RFID: One Year Later, a contributed article from Tim Marsh, senior manager at Pfizer Global Package Technology. The article revealed key data and findings from Pfizer's fourteen-month-old RFID pilot to tag all bottles of Viagra sold in the US. RFID Update interviewed Marsh about his thoughts on the pilot and what it indicates about RFID and the pharmaceutical supply chain.

According to Marsh, Pfizer has been generally pleased by the pilot, in particular the experience and knowledge that it gained. "The success of this project," he said, "is our learning how to deploy the technology as a pharmaceutical packager in a way that is scalable. We understand what is scalable and what's not, what's mature, and how to make it work beyond our door."

That success did not come without a lot of experimentation and tweaking, he noted. Technical challenges such as imperfect read rates persist. Furthermore, Pfizer learned that RFID very likely requires end users to restructure some of their business processes to extract the greatest value. "You can't just plug in a non-line-of-sight technology and expect ROI," he cautioned. "You're still going to have change your business process."

Close watchers of the debate about which type of RFID is best for item-level tagging in the pharmaceutical supply chain -- high frequency (HF) or ultrahigh frequency (UHF) -- will have noticed that Pfizer's data appeared to favor HF over UHF, whose 99.5 percent yield performance on items was better overall than UHF's 97.0 percent yield on cases and pallets (see the original article).

An important point, however, is that Pfizer was using Gen1 UHF technology. Since Gen2 UHF product started hitting the market early last year, end user praise of its performance improvement over Gen1 has been nearly unanimous. Thus, the performance of UHF -- which is used for cases and pallets, but not individual bottles of Viagra -- is expected to improve markedly as Pfizer transitions to Gen2. "We know Gen2 is better," said Marsh, who noted that Pfizer had actually just made the transition from Gen1 to Gen2 last month. The company's early data on Gen2 already demonstrates better performance than the 97 percent read rate seen with Gen1.

Marsh also said that Pfizer is looking at near field UHF, a flavor of the technology proponents argue could be used more effectively at the item level than competing HF technology. Marsh said that near field UHF was promising, but that according to the data Pfizer has collected it is not yet suitable for deployment on the Viagra line. He added that Pfizer is open to the idea of near field UHF at the item level if the reliability and performance can be demonstrated to match that of HF, a more mature RFID technology that Marsh characterized as a "workhorse."

Ultimately, Pfizer hopes the publication of its Viagra-tagging data will drive previously hesitant end users to move forward with their own RFID pilots. "We've put our raw data out there. Hopefully this will allow people to get off the fence and start doing something."

For its part, Pfizer is moving ahead. The company aims to have all cases sold in the US of the popular arthritis pain reliever Celebrex tagged by the end of this year.
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