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Ahold Learns Lessons From Drug-Tracking Trial

Based on its U.S. pilot deployment, the supermarket operator expects to use both HF and UHF technologies to track containers of drugs, but says read rates are still not quite high enough.
By Beth Bacheldor
May 01, 2007Ahold, a group of supermarkets and food-service operators in the United States and Europe, believes pharmaceutical companies and retailers will need to deploy both HF and UHF passive tags to track shipments of drugs. However, the company feels read rates of tagged items are still not quite good enough.

Ahold earns approximately $56 billion in sales annually from such stores as Giant Food and Stop & Shop in the United States, as well as the Albert Heijn and ICA supermarkets in Europe. Recently, the retailer conducted a pilot in the United States involving item- and tote-level tracking of pharmaceutical drugs from a distribution center to two stores.

Based on its experiences, Ahold recommends that in-store, item-level receipt reads be performed by RFID interrogators designed to handle multiple frequencies. Leslie Hand, director of global RFID strategy with Ahold USA, told attendees Monday at RFID Journal LIVE! 2007 in Orlando, Fla., that there is a real need for RFID within the health-care and pharmaceutical sectors. Prior to launching the U.S. pilot, Hand said she witnessed how the technology might improve quality-control processes within a pharmaceutical distribution center, where employees had to dump out totes ready for shipment and rescan the bar code on every item within each tote to make sure they had been accurately picked and packed.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is really an area that could benefit from a non-line-of-sight technology,'" Hand recalled. Thus, Ahold USA developed a pilot using RFID to track the totes and their items from the time they're packed at a distribution center to the moment of reception at two of its stores.

The pilot involved the attachment of UHF EPC Gen 2 tags to totes, with passive high-frequency (13.56 MHz) tags already affixed to drug packaging. The tagged items included three drugs shipped by Pfizer to an Ahold USA distribution center. At the DC, Ahold employees also affixed HF tags affixed to the bottoms of 30 other drugs, representing high-volume sales for the company.

When processing orders, workers picked the tagged items they needed, placing them in tagged totes that were then scanned and moved down a conveyor to a quality-control area. There, the totes passed through an RFID tunnel reader, where the tags of each tote and its contents were read and checked against the orders. The pilot also included a dock-door reader to scan totes being loaded onto trucks. Finally, pharmacists at the two stores employed handheld interrogators to confirm the totes' reads against order invoices as they were received.

Ahold USA tested both UHF EPC Gen 2 and HF tags on the individual items. According to Hand, the HF tags worked best—though she added, "we expect we are going to be an environment that uses multiple frequencies for some time."

The pilot yielded positive read rates: 100 percent as packed totes were received, scanned on the tote conveyor and scanned again in the stores. But read rates were not as strong during the quality-control process. In fact, only 96 percent of the tote tags were successfully read during an initial pass through the tunnel. To achieve a 100 percent read rate, an average of 2.7 passes per tote through the tunnel were required.

"If you passed the tote through the tunnel and didn't get a 100 percent read rate," Hand explained, "you could shake it and send it again, and that generally would work, That's a problem. We need better performance."

Ahold also believes the industry still needs to consider privacy issues, and how RFID will impact the consumer. "We don't want to deliver a tagged product to our customers," Hand told the audience. "Most of the time, we rebottle drugs, but when we don't, we need to be able to deactivate, disable or pull off the tag."
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