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EPCIS, RFID Effective in European Pharmaceutical Pilot

RFID tags, two-dimensional bar code labels and the EPCIS data sharing standard successfully helped track more than 50,000 drug packages during a three-year pilot in Europe. Drugs made in Ireland and the Netherlands were tracked through manufacturers, packagers, distributors, wholesalers and logistics providers to a London hospital.
Jan 27, 2009This article was originally published by RFID Update.

January 27, 2009—UK standards organization GS1 UK released preliminary results of a pilot project that used RFID, bar codes, the EPCIS data exchange system and a variety of international identification standards to successfully track drugs from international manufacturing facilities to a London hospital. The pilot tracked 15 different medicines, 50,000 individually identified drug packages plus their cases and pallets from manufacturers in Ireland and the Netherlands through distributors and wholesalers to receipt at Barts hospital, where they were packed into totes for tracking in the facility.

"It was all done with real medicine going to real patients," project coordinator John Jenkins told RFID Update. "The bottom-line message is the technologies are ready for deployment. We demonstrated their ability to perform in real-world conditions."

A major focus was to validate the ability of the EPCIS data sharing standard and communication system to provide visibility to users throughout the supply chain. Manufacturers applied Data Matrix two-dimensional (2D) bar codes to individual drug packages on the production line. Each package was uniquely identified with a serial number encoded in the Data Matrix symbol. Manufacturers could produce and apply 2D labels for approximately 150 items per minute on the production line, according to Jenkins.

Cases and pallets also all received unique ID numbers, and were labeled with both Data Matrix bar codes and EPC Gen2 passive RFID tags. All identifiers were published to an EPCIS database, which associated individual drug packages with the cases and pallets they were packaged into. All pilot participants, which included approximately 15 pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, logistics providers, technology firms, standards bodies and Barts hospital, could access the EPCIS database.

"We knew where products were at any given time, so we could effect a recall almost instantly if required," Jenkins said. "It wasn't all easy, and I don't want to give that impression."

Bar code and/or RFID reads were taken to track drugs when they left their manufacturing facility, upon entry and exit at distributors, at entry to the wholesaler, when wholesalers repacked case and pallet content into totes to be placed into inventory, when assembled orders were shipped from the wholesaler, and when received at the hospital. Multiple GS1 identification standards were used for package labels, tote boxes, returnable assets, shipping labels and transport vehicles. GPS tracking was used to supplement the system to monitor shipments from the Netherlands.

The same unique identifier was encoded into the RFID and bar codes used at the case and pallet levels. Project participants had their choice of reading technologies. "Interestingly, there were not many differences between the RFID and bar code systems," Jenkins said. "There were some clear benefits to RFID in certain operations, because cases and pallets could be scanned when they entered or exited facilities without a direct line of site."

Some participants used camera phones with bar code decoding software to scan Data Matrix labels. "What that shows is the reading technology needed for traceability systems is very simple, and can be low cost," Jenkins said.

The pilot started in 2006, when GS1 UK first began recruiting participants, and will officially conclude this June. Jenkins is preparing final reports about the pilot for the European Commission, which sponsored the effort as part of its BRIDGE (Building Radio Frequency Identification for the Global Environment) project to fund and research RFID activity. More details about the pilot and a list of participants are included in the GS1 UK announcement.

The tracking portion of the pilot is completed, and participants are no longer using RFID, bar code and EPCIS to monitor movements through the supply chain. However Jenkins said the pilot's contract packager, Tjoapack, may incorporate some elements of the system, and the manufacturers have retained their marking equipment and will provide RFID or bar code labeling if customers request it.

"We learned that the value really depends on where you are in the supply chain, how you view data, and how much organizations take advantage of data they already have," Jenkins said. "Wholesalers gain traceability up and down their supply chains that they probably don't currently have. Pharmacies can save a lot of time recording goods in, and in accounting for invoice processing. Organizations throughout the supply chain can improve their inventory management, reduce waste, get better visibility into expiring products and improve their control."

Jenkins said the pilot system could have been adopted to include drug pedigrees, and the results show that GS1 standards and technologies can be effective for providing traceability and helping detect counterfeit products in the pharmaceutical supply chain.
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