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Zimmer Ohio to Use RFID to Manage Orthopedic Products

The distributor of replacement joints is automating its order-fulfillment and inventory-tracking processes, and expects to recoup its investment within a year.
By Claire Swedberg
May 12, 2010Zimmer Ohio, which has exclusive rights to sell and distribute orthopedic products and instruments manufactured by Zimmer Inc., is installing an RFID system that it expects will reduce the labor hours of its inventory staff by several hours a day, while also increasing the visibility of its high-value items as they are shipped to hospitals and then returned.

Zimmer Ohio provides Zimmer's line of orthopedic implants and surgery tools to Ohio-area hospitals. Typically, when a surgeon schedules a surgical procedure, such as a hip replacement, the hospital at which he or she works may place an order with Zimmer Ohio for numerous implantable parts that might possibly be used during such an operation, as well as trays containing the appropriate surgical instruments. It is not uncommon for the firm to send several hundred items for a single operation, with only a few actually implanted and the rest returned to one of Zimmer Ohio's two warehouse facilities, located in Columbus and Hudson.

A cart loaded with the trays and implantable devices is rolled into a custom-designed RFID tunnel.

There is no room for shipment errors by Zimmer Ohio when it comes to implants or tools used in surgery, says John Reese, the inventory operations manager at Zimmer Ohio's Columbus warehouse. For that reason, the company employs inventory specialists who spend hours every day checking over each order to ensure the correct inventory is sent in each shipment. The items are checked four times before being transported to a hospital.

The aluminum surgical tool trays (which measure 22 inches by 10 inches and range from one to eight inches tall) can be the most time-consuming, as there are often several hundred very small items—for example, a 2.5-millimeter (0.09-inch) drill bit—packed within them, all of which must be accounted for. The value of a single tray and its contents can range from $1,000 to more than $20,000, Reese says, so another concern is ensuring that the trays do not get lost. Following a surgery's completion, the hospital sterilizes the entire tray and all of the tools it holds, then seals the tray in plastic film and places it on a shelf corresponding with its particular provider, such as Zimmer Ohio, for the driver to pick up. If the tray is inadvertently placed on the wrong shelf, it can be time-consuming to locate it. To identify which tray it is, Zimmer Ohio or the hospital may need to unwrap the tray and examine its contents, after which re-sterilization and rewrapping of the tray would then be necessary.

For several years, Zimmer Ohio had sought an automated solution that would reduce the time it spent ensuring each shipment was in order. But when the firm investigated RFID several years ago, Reese says, tag cost made the implementation seem too expensive. In September 2009, however, the company began working with RFID Enabled Solutions (RES), based in Dublin, Ohio.

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