DHL Thermonet Tracks Drugs and Life-Sciences Goods With RFID Temperature Tag

By Claire Swedberg

The solution, employing UHF RFID tags with built-in temperature sensors applied to containers, will enable DHL's customers to maintain a record of shipping temperatures, and receive an alert if an exception occurs.

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DHL Global Forwarding, the air and ocean freight specialist within Deutsche Post DHL, has commercialized DHL Thermonet, an RFID-based air-freight service allowing customers to track the temperatures of their goods throughout the shipping process, for such temperature-sensitive products as pharmaceuticals or biomedical items. The technology has already been tested by several global firms, and is now available to DHL’s customers worldwide, says David Bang, the CEO of LifeConEx, a DHL Global Forwarding cold-chain-services subsidiary that created Thermonet.

The technology has been many years in development, Bang reports, with the goal of monitoring customers’ shipment integrity. In 2005, DHL and Lufthansa founded LifeConEx to develop a technology platform to help customers track the temperatures of goods in transit—specifically, for its life-sciences and health-care customers that manufacture highly sensitive products that must be kept cool.

At one of DHL’s SmartSensor reading stations, a DHL employee in a cold room reads the temperature data stored on the RFID tag, attached to a shipping box via a plastic pouch.

In 2007, DHL developed an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) sensor tag for pharmaceutical customers, in partnership with IBM, Intel, NXP Semiconductors and SAP, which was tested by several pharmaceutical companies (see DHL Expects to Launch “Sensor Tag” Service By Midyear). DHL opted not to adopt the system, however. The LifeConEx solution is based, in part, on the first generation of that sensor tag.

In 2011, DHL bought out Lufthansa’s interest in LifeConEx, which then continued the development of a technology-based temperature-management solution. This included the creation of software that stores and interprets the collected data, and alerts customers in the event that the temperature measurements exceed certain parameters. The result, the company reports, is the DHL Thermonet service.

In addition to hardware and software, the service involves DHL’s Global Proactive Monitoring & Intervention Centers, to monitor data from the DHL Thermonet system and forward that information, when intervention is needed, to local Certified Life Sciences Stations—DHL’s local centers for handling, storing and transporting customer shipments. For example, if a temperature has become too warm, a Life Sciences Station will receive notification of this problem, and may then send personnel to visit the site where the goods are located, in order to discern the cause and ensure that it is addressed.

DHL’s Solutions and Innovation division selected the RFID and sensor hardware components, and the company’s IT services staff developed the RFID middleware to receive the read data and then forward that information to LifeConEx’s LifeTrack software. The DHL Thermonet SmartSensor tag consists of an EPC Gen 2 passive UHF RFID inlay integrated with a battery-powered temperature logger, manufactured by CAEN RFID. The sensor continually captures temperature data and stores it until the tag is interrogated. For customers that opt for the Thermonet service, DHL applies the SmartSensor to each box, such as a carton filled with medications that must remain at a refrigerated temperature. The tag can be mounted on the exterior of the box inside a DHL pouch designed specifically for the Thermonet system, or the shipper can request that the box be opened and the sensor be placed inside. The SmartSensor measures approximately twice the height and width of a credit card, but is similar in depth to such a card.

The tag ID is linked to the shipper’s identity in the LifeTrack software, as well as to shipping details, including that product’s destination address and the temperature requirements. The SmartSensor tag is read at four points: upon arrival at the first origin station (which is typically where the tag is applied), when the item leaves that station to be tendered to an airline, when it is received at the destination station located nearest the intended recipient, and when it is shipped from that site to the delivery address.

At each of these SmartSensor reading stations, a tag’s ID number and temperature recordings are captured and then forwarded via a wireless connection to the LifeTrack software residing on LifeConEx’s server, where the data is interpreted and stored. If the software determines that the temperature readings have deviated from acceptable levels, it issues an alert to a Global Proactive Monitoring & Intervention Center, which can work with the appropriate local Certified Life Sciences Station to forward a message to the shipping customer, as well as dispatch a staff member to address the problem.

If there are no deviations, however, the data is simply stored in the LifeTrack software. When the package is delivered to the designated recipient, the information becomes available to the customer that originated the shipment, and that company can then log into the system, input a password and view all of the temperature readings.

Customers can request a variety of modifications to the process, Bang says. For example, in advance of the shipment, they could request the tags from DHL and then apply them to the containers in which the products are being shipped. They could also request more than one tag for each container; in that case, they would have to pay for the additional tags. In addition, users could allow the shipments’ recipients to read the tags using their own RFID readers, or ask that DHL’s drivers carry the readers and interrogate the tags at the time of delivery.

According to DHL, a customer pays a predetermined rate for the Thermonet service, which includes access to data online, as well as temperature data and the RFID transmission of that information. The service is available around the world, Band adds, and one of the piloting companies was a worldwide corporation. However, he notes, “One of our key messages is that any size of customer can use this solution,” ranging from a small biotech firm to a global pharmaceutical company (though the system is provided only for business-to-business shipments, and is not available as a service to consumers).

The tag is disposable, and is designed to be discarded at the time of receipt, along with the product’s shipping box.

The solution, Bang says, provides customers with assurance that their products were shipped at a safe temperature, and they can also share that data with regulatory bodies, as necessary. In addition, if a temperature discrepancy occurs, the technology will help DHL identify the problem faster, and thus address that issue before other goods are damaged—or, at least, in time to save the goods inside the carton whose tag has measured excessively warm temperatures. That not only saves the cost of that product, DHL explains, but also spares the customer from a potential loss in sales if goods were unable to be delivered in satisfactory condition at the expected time.

At present, about 20 DHL sites worldwide have been set up as SmartSensor reading stations, with plans to expand to 60 such stations at the end of 2014. While most life-sciences and health-care companies are currently based in the United States and Europe, Bang says, China, India and Brazil are among emerging areas of growth in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, and SmartSensor reading stations would need to be included in these countries.