German Drug Company Tracks Products With UHF Tags

By Claire Swedberg

Wholesaler Max Pharma is utilizing an RFID system to track medicines internally, and wants to encourage more suppliers and pharmacies to take advantage of the technology as well.

German pharmaceutical distributor Max Pharma has completed a pilot using passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID tags to track drug products from Sun Pharmaceutical Industries that pass through Max Pharma's Gattendorf distribution facility. The pilot's success, the company reports, has encouraged it to move to the rollout phase. Down the line, Max Pharma hopes that additional drug manufacturers will tag shipments, and that more pharmacies will use the technology as well.

Max Pharma has been experimenting with RFID for several years. The company's aim has been to improve the visibility of products within its own facilities, and to sell the solution—which was developed by the firm's IT division, XQS-Service GmbH—to Max Pharma's supply chain partners.

In addition to acquiring and storing data regarding products and their shipping times and dates, XQS-Service's RFID-based track-and-trace solution can also monitor temperatures and other sensor data, though that was not within the scope of this year's pilot. The temperature-tracking feature allows supply chain members to sign onto an Internet-based portal, on which the XQS-Service software provides information about sensor measurements and shipping details.

Max Pharma is a wholesaler of oncology products to pharmacies and physicians throughout Germany, as well as in the Czech Republic. Its XQS-Service division was launched in 2006 to assist Max Pharma, as well as other companies participating in the drug supply chain, in tracking and tracing products from manufacturer to physician. "The idea is to implement a solution-provider (XQS) directly in the pharma environment," says Eldar Sultanow, XQS-Service's CIO.

The RFID program that XQS-Service developed is intended to meet European requirements for tracking the movements of pharmaceuticals throughout the supply chain, in order to reduce the risk of counterfeit drugs entering the market.

Max Pharma's wholesaler division ships approximately 50 boxes daily—each containing about 300 packages of oncology products—through its 8,000-square-meter (86,111-square-foot) facility. It ships €5 million ($7.3 million) worth of products monthly.

Max Pharma had been tracking drugs from Sun Pharmaceutical Industries with high-frequency (HF) RFID tags since 2006, providing an electronic record of when each product arrived and then left Max Pharma's distribution center. Sun Pharmaceutical applied passive HF tags to some of its products, including the chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Gemcitabine. At the time of manufacture at its Kirchzarten facility, Sun Pharmaceutical was applying adhesive HF tags to each item's secondary packaging.

To date, XQS-Service has sold RFID readers (initially HF, though the firm has since replaced them with UHF) to 10 of the pharmacies receiving the products, enabling them to read the tags and create an electronic record of when each item was received, as well as its serial number, date of manufacture, expiration date and other details. XQS-Service built its own software platform, know as QS on Demand, to manage the RFID read data.

According to Sultanow, the HF technology being used required proprietary readers that cost about 70 percent more than UHF readers. Because UHF technology's ability to read tags within a liquid environment has been improving, he notes, the pilot was launched to test UHF tags with a tunnel reader at XQS-Service's location, to read each item's ID number as boxes of tagged drugs passed to the loading dock for shipment to a pharmacy. The pilot also tested the software's ability to capture and store such information as each item's serial number, which was then linked to the EPC tag's unique ID.

Sultanow says the latest pilot has proved that UHF RFID can be used just as effectively in a highly liquid environment, and at a lower cost. UHF technology will save users money, he says, since the UHF readers are less expensive than the HF versions that Max Pharma and its customers previously used. He declines to name the specific providers of the UHF RFID tags or readers, but indicates that several companies' products could be used.

For the pilot, which began in August 2010 and has since transitioned into a permanent deployment, Sun Pharmaceutical applied UHF tags (rather than HF) to the packaging of each bottle of oncology products, such as Paclitaxel and Gemcitabine. It then packed the items in large boxes (as many as 300 per box) and shipped them to Max Pharma's Gattendorf warehouse. Sun Pharmaceutical does not read the tags prior to shipment. Instead, it gains its benefits from tagging products by ensuring greater traceability, and thus greater assurance that its products are not counterfeit.

Max Pharma read each tag as the boxes were received, by placing them through the tunnel reader. The company currently has two tunnel readers—one an HF reader for HF tags already applied to Sun Pharmaceutical products, the other a UHF interrogator for those items being applied for the pilot. In the case of the UHF reader, Sultanow says, all of the tags (applied to Sun Pharmaceutical products) within the boxes could be read. The cartons were then stored within the warehouse. When a retail order was placed, the warehouse staff removed the requested quantity of bottles from the boxes in which they were stored, and then packed them, sometimes along with bottles from other drug suppliers, in new containers. These were then passed through a tunnel with a built-in RFID reader. The tunnel measures approximately two feet by two feet.

During the pilot, Max Pharma was able to read all 300 to 400 tags on the packaging of bottles, stored within a single box, without any errors reported.

Some of Max Pharma's retailer customers are also beginning to employ the UHF RFID tags. To date, 10 pharmacies are using an "RFID terminal box" provided by XQS-Service, which includes a desktop reader that can capture not only the unique ID number of each product, but also sensor data (if a temperature sensor is used in a box of temperature-sensitive products).

The long-term plan, Sultanow says, is to sell handheld readers to physicians as well, so that they can read the tags on products prior to preparing an infusion mix for a patient. By reading each tag's ID, a doctor could utilize software to store data indicating which product was provided to a patient, as well as the concentration administered. XQS-Service is currently developing humidity and shock sensors that, like the temperature sensors already in place, would include RFID tags linked to temperature, humidity or shock sensors that would travel with a shipment, and would collect and then transmit a history of the conditions to which products were exposed during transportation from one facility to another.

Authorized members of the supply chain are then able to log onto a third-party hosted server, managed by XQS-Service, to view details regarding a product's transportation history, along with the sensor details.

Drug manufacturer Medac International has also agreed to attach UHF tags to products that it provides to Max Pharma, starting this summer, while Sun Pharmaceutical will continue affixing UHF tags to its own products shipped to Max Pharma. For both manufacturers, the benefit of employing RFID will be in guaranteeing to customer that their products' transportation through the supply chain will be visible and monitored.

The next step, according to Sultanow, will be to encourage additional drug manufacturers to attach RFID tags to their products as well, to ensure that more tagged products enter the supply chain, and to encourage a greater number of retailers to acquire readers to participate in the RFID-enabled electronic supply chain record.