Highlights From the Fifth RFID Academic Convocation

At the fifth RFID Academic Convocation, held in conjunction with RFID Journal LIVE! 2007, end users and researchers discussed issues that must be addressed to enhance RFID's value in the health-care sector.
Published: October 3, 2009

The fifth RFID Academic Convocation, held in conjunction with RFID Journal LIVE! 2007, focused on the health-care industry. Top executives from several end-user companies addressed the convocation in the morning, with researchers presenting papers in the afternoon. Highlights of the event, provided by Stephen Miles, a researcher at MIT and a member of the organizing committee, are presented below. For the complete agenda and a list of experts who participated, click here.

Business Requirements for Transforming the Health-Care Supply Chain

Carolyn Walton, Wal-Mart‘s vice president of information systems, discussed the need for change in health-care costs. As the “baby-boomer” generation faces retirement, she said, the pressures of declining reimbursements will further squeeze health-care providers. Walton cited a recent study from McKesson, which found that 45 percent of a hospital’s operating costs are tied up in inventories of supplies, drugs, consumables and other items, while administration consumes 25 percent of revenue. This presents an opportunity for rationalization through the use of supply-chain best practices. Carolyn noted that in many instances, the hospital industry has yet to adopt bar codes. In an industry where medical errors affect 1.5 million people and cost $3.5 billion per year, there is tremendous room to make improvements using RFID in hospitals today.

Ron Bone, McKesson’s senior vice president of distribution planning, provided an update on e-pedigree regulations, in response to California’s electronic pedigree (e-pedigree) initiative. Ron also outlined recent activities of EPCglobal’s Healthcare and Life Sciences (HLS) Interest Group to support a standardized interface for e-pedigree applications. Ron noted a continuing need for research to move the ball forward in the following areas:

  • Track and trace: Strategy and guidelines are needed for data sharing, and it’s important to include multiple parties, such as third-party logistics providers and re-packers.
  • E-pedigree messaging standard: Targeted for June release, this standard is intended to harmonize interfaces in countries where the government is the single payer, as well as regional e-pedigree initiatives in Italy and elsewhere.
  • Process challenges: Retail and hospital pharmacies place orders for next-morning delivery. When RFID-labeled products are introduced, that cannot cause delays in the instantaneous pick-and-ship systems at distribution centers.

Mike Rose, vice president of RFID/EPC global value chain at Johnson & Johnson, expressed concern for how the HLS industry can build a common, scaleable infrastructure for a multi-tier, diverse supply chain. How, he asked, will all the pieces of the EPCglobal Network fit together? The group discussed:

  • Specifications for an HLS industry trust model for registries: This includes security, authentication and verification. How will companies know which registry to go to for inquiry about a specific EPC?
  • RFID’s impact on pharmaceutical products and devices: The FDA’s presentation at this meeting was considered an important step in opening a dialogue on best-practices methodologies for testing the impact of RFID. During the “RFID Research in Health Care” session, for instance, Seth Seidman—an electrical engineer at the FDA’s Center for Devices of Radiological Health—discussed the electromagnetic compatibility of pacemakers and implantable cardiac defibrillators exposed to RFID readers.
  • The need for an analysis of how and when to inference data for e-pedigree and supply-chain optimization: In the absence of 100 percent tag reads, at what point does it make sense to take custody of goods in the e-pedigree process?
  • Medication compliance: “Right patient, right product, right dose, right time,” Mike said, noting that the long-term promise of RFID to improve patient care is subject to privacy and security measures being put in place.

Leslie Hand, director of global RFID strategy for Ahold USA, explained how the company RFID-enabled its processes for a receiving and shipping pilot, involving item- and tote-level tracking of pharmaceutical drugs from a distribution center to two stores (see Ahold Learns Lessons From Drug-Tracking Trial). Leslie discussed the importance of the HF RF tunnel for reading mixed totes and the picking cart, both designed by the company.

In the panel discussion that followed, moderated by Bill Hardgrave, director of the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas, the group identified important research areas. These included:

  • Privacy and security: The general consensus was that information would become similar to credit-card data.
  • Printable tags and organic semiconductors: Tag data memory and read speeds need to be improved before these technologies can present a viable alternative.

The panelists also discussed how researchers could get involved, expressing their appreciation for the opportunity to present their industry requirements to the academic community. Ron Bone cited EPCglobal industry work groups as a good way to get involved, explaining that the “Jumpstart” pilot—in which 21 participants, including retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers, experimented with different products—resulted in a lot of questions where research could be helpful.

In addition, Leslie Hand reiterated the need for business cases illustrating how companies can drive value throughout the HLS supply chain. The convocation also examined EPCglobal Network issues that need to be researched. Scalability and security were identified as key areas on which to focus.

EPC Network Architecture Requirements

In the afternoon session on EPC networking, Steve Georgevitch from Boeing noted the importance of defining the EPC network architecture, a test methodology, scalability analysis and tools to estimate how much such an EPC network is going to cost. As is the case with pharma distribution, Steve emphasized the importance of speed in Boeing’s manufacturing operations, which is reducing the days needed for 787 final assembly time in the factory from eleven down to three. Today 75% of Boeing’s parts are already shipped by air. Boeing is both the largest exporter and a top-20 importer for the United States. Specific research issues identified included:

  • RFID for product lifecycle management and maintenance and repair operations, which is being led by Ken Porad in the Dreamliner project, with requirements for sustainment throughout 30 to 40 repair cycles over 50 years.
  • Requirements for assessment of RFID’s impact on existing data infrastructure—for instance, the number of transactions—as well as the impact on QoS for existing high-capacity concurrent engineering and design collaboration traffic flows.
  • Visibility where RFID adds value—by contrast, 80% of this data should not need to be touched.
  • How designing and implementing a test infrastructure currently may require additional network infrastructure, depending on the scale and criticality of the installation.

Richard Wishart, advisor to the Universal Postal Union (UPU), noted the evolution of postal services from closed loop to open loop RFID systems for their 10,000-RFID-reader network. Richard gave the example of the UPU’s digital postmark plug-in for Microsoft Office 2007, which provides etrust and address validation.

Richard also expressed interest in RFID network security, scalability and reliability, noting the requirement for multiple registries in a distributed network of national postal services. As postal services look to advance into areas of individual package tracking, the research issues discussed in the morning session take on an even greater dimension of variability, so the need for standards is greater in the UPU.

Network architecture papers presented in response to industry requirements identified in prior convocations included a report from Professor John R. Williams, director of the Auto-ID Labs, introducing an EPC network simulator being built at MIT to provide fact-based performance data for the variety of e-pedigree and dynamic track-and-trace models being proposed. In addition, Yanlei Diao, Ph.D., from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, presented a proposal for “SPIRE, a scalable RFID Event Stream” architecture.

For more information, see Research Requirements Emerge From RFID Academic Convocation.