Gador to Track Drugs in Argentina

By Claire Swedberg

The pharmaceutical company will employ an EPC Gen 2 RFID system to reduce the risk of counterfeiting, by applying a tag to each high-value product it ships.

Gador Laboratories, one of Argentina's largest pharmaceutical providers, is installing a radio frequency identification solution at one of its factories that will enable the company to track individual pharmaceutical products, as well as the pallets on which they are transported.

The deployment follows a month-long pilot undertaken at Gador's Buenos Aires location in December 2010, using a solution provided by systems integrator Telectrónica. The pilot's aim was to determine if tightly packed products, moving at high speed and within an environment containing high levels of metal and liquids, could be successfully read without interfering with the manufacturing process. The piloted system, which Telectrónica installed, included one fixed Impinj interrogator to read item-level RFID tags, as well as a second fixed Impinj device to read the tags of cartons and pallets as the products were packed and then shipped. Data read from the tags was received and interpreted by Telectrónica's traceability software, in order to track the locations of the goods being shipped, the packs in which they are contained and the pallets on which they are loaded.

Gador develops and manufactures medications in four locations in Argentina, selling 2 million units of pharmaceutical products on a monthly basis. The company began seeking an automated system to track its products and protect against counterfeiters in the supply chain between its facility and retailers. Item-level tracking of pharmaceutical products is expected to be mandated in South America, which could be accomplished using either bar codes or RFID labels on each item. "Doing such a thing with bar codes is feasible, but it will impact the supply chain with manual processes," says Alan Gidekel, Telectrónica's general manager, noting that RFID would be the faster-performing solution.

"Our primary objective is anti-counterfeiting," says Ricardo Jellinek, Gador's director of technology and operations. To maintain product integrity and ensure the safety of its customers, the firm is focused on ensuring that no one attempts to counterfeit its products at any point along the supply chain. Therefore, it tested the use of RFID at its Buenos Aires facility, and is currently in discussions with several of its distributors to begin building an RFID reader infrastructure at distribution locations.

At Gador's manufacturing sites, bottles are filled with medications and labeled at high speed. The pharmaceutical company required a system that would allow the application of RFID tags, as well as the reading and encoding of those tags, without reducing the efficiency of the manufacturing process. To that end, the firm began working with Telectrónica to test an RFID system that would link each product to the pack in which it is contained, in addition to the pallet on which it was loaded.

Telectrónica first tested the system at its in-house laboratory, including Impinj ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) bulk-encoding readers and UPM RFID EPC Gen 2 tags on containers of medication. The data culled from each read was interpreted by Telectrónica's traceability software, residing on a server hosted by Telectrónica itself, which also linked the unique ID number of each individual container (filled with pills) with the IDs of its pack and pallet, in a parent-child relationship.

At Gador, the same hardware and software was employed during the pilot that followed Telectrónica's in-house testing. Gador's packaging manufacturer provided packaging with RFID labels already attached via an automatic applicator. After being placed in the packaging, a bottle of medication passed along a conveyor belt near a photoelectric eye, which detected the product's presence and alerted the Telectrónica software. The software then instructed the interrogator to capture the RFID numbers of every tag, in order to ensure that they functioned properly. The reader next encoded the tag with such data as the product's lot number and name, as well as the date, and the items were combined with other packaged bottles to create packs. The RFID data was received by the Telectrónica software, which also stored the information, thereby indicating which items had been loaded into which packs.

Gador's staff then applied RFID tags printed on a Zebra Technologies R110 RFID printer-encoder to the packs themselves, and read the tags using a handheld reader, marrying each unique ID number with the IDs of all products packed within. Once the packs were loaded onto a pallet, an RFID tag was printed on another Zebra R110 printer and was then applied to the pallet, with the pallet label's unique ID number linked to the item IDs. Each pack contained 20 individual products; 360 packs were loaded onto one pallet, with 18 rows of 20 packs. The readers thus needed to be able to capture tags throughout that pallet load. The data on the handhelds could be sent—either via a Wi-Fi connection or a USB connection—to a computer that then forwarded that information to the server on which each pallet ID number was married to the pack and item tag IDs.

The system proved that RFID could provide Gador with accurate data regarding the products that were packed and shipped. What's more, it showed that with an RFID label attached to each item, the technology could prevent the risk of counterfeit goods being introduced into the supply chain after the products were shipped, since counterfeiters would be unable to produce their own RFID tags with numbers matching those of the product as indicated in Gador's database.

According to Gidekel, Gador hopes, in the second quarter of 2011, to deploy an RFID solution similar to that utilized during the pilot, in order to track two of its drugs, by reading the tags at the time that they are packed, and again on the pallets as they are shipped from its Buenos Aires location.

"Our first step is knowing we have everything working," Jellinek states, "and that we have a tag on the packaging that can not be changed." In other words, if a medication's validity were in doubt, its RFID tag could be read and compared against the RFID numbers stored in Gador's back-end system. The next phase includes bringing distributors into the system, by encouraging them to acquire RFID readers and sharing data with Gador about the receipt and shipment of goods. "Everybody will have a benefit from that," he says, since they could then share such information.