RFID Helps Medlog Monitor Pharmaceutical Cold Chain

By Rhea Wessel

The Portuguese company is using EPC Gen 2 tags with built-in temperature loggers to ensure that the drugs it distributes have been shipped under proper conditions.

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Medlog, a Portuguese logistics firm specializing in the delivery of medications to pharmacies, is employing RFID-based temperature loggers to monitor the cold chain for sensitive medicines. At the end of 2009, the company expanded its use of radio frequency identification to all six of its warehouses in Portugal. Now, Medlog—which reported sales of more than €300 million ($402 million) in 2008—is considering further upgrades to the system, such as automatic activation of those temperature loggers.

Medlog, a subsidiary of Portuguese pharmaceutical distributor Cooprofar, works to ensure that drugs are stored at the proper temperature from the time they are received from Medlog’s 250 suppliers until they are delivered to some 1,000 clients. It does so, according to Paulo Pires, Medlog’s logistics manager, in order to comply with E.U. regulations requiring that certain medications be kept at temperatures within a specified range during shipping and handling, as well as to differentiate itself among its competition by offering the service and near-real-time information regarding temperatures along the cold chain during the transport process.


The CAEN A927 temperature logger contains an EPC Gen 2 RFID tag.

The system selects 5 percent to 10 percent of all cold-storage containers on a random basis, Pires says, which are tagged with temperature loggers. By analyzing the data, he explains, Medlog is able to draw conclusions about the condition of the entire cold chain it oversees.

Before RFID was implemented, Medlog did not know the exact temperatures of the medications it transported. The company attempted to track temperatures by having employees attach digital temperature loggers to the interior of its trucks’ refrigerated compartments. The loggers had to be switched on manually, however, and after a delivery run, data from the digital thermometers had to be exported into a spreadsheet for analysis. Employees took these steps only once or twice per month, Pires says. What’s more, the temperature readings were inaccurate, since they were taken outside the insulated containers in which the drugs were shipped, instead of inside them.

With the help of RFID integrator Creativesystems, Medlog designed and implemented an RFID application featuring semi-passive RFID tags with built-in temperature sensors. The tags are placed inside the isothermal transport boxes in which the medication is shipped.

Workers who pick the pharmaceuticals from Medlog’s warehouse shelves are notified on a portable electronic device that the particular medication’s cold chain needs to be tracked.

At that point, a worker attaches an A927 temperature logger, provided by CAEN RFID, to the interior of the appropriate transport box. The A927 contains a temperature sensor and a semi-passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag that complies with the EPC Gen 2 standard and has a battery life of roughly three years. The worker seals the box, and then uses a Nordic ID PL 3000 handheld RFID reader to activate the tag. Once the tag is activated, it begins to record temperatures at a pre-determined interval—in this case, every 30 minutes. Workers scan the container bar code, and the system—which already knows which products are in the box—associates the container ID to the RFID tag’s unique ID number. This information is then sent to the database via a GPRS or WLAN connection.

At present, Medlog uses approximately 100 A927 temperature loggers and three handheld readers at each of its six warehouses. One of the interrogators is kept in the warehouse, and two are utilized by drivers.

As the containers are moved through the warehouse and are delivered to customers in Medlog’s vehicles, temperature data is stored on the tag. When a driver arrives at his destination, he reads a box’s packing slip to discern if a temperature logger is inside a container (drivers are forbidden to open sealed boxes en route, for security reasons). If so, he employs the handheld reader to interrogate the tag and collect its ID number along with the temperature data, which are then transmitted to the database via a GPRS connection. The computer system analyzes the information and issues an alarm to the driver’s handheld device if the recorded temperature within the container deviated outside the acceptable range. The alarm appears as a red- or yellow-highlighted message on the handheld, and is also e-mailed to Medlog’s managers, who can then decide what actions, if any, to take. If the driver sees a red or yellow light, he knows not to deliver the medication to the pharmacy without first consulting a manager.

“If an alarm goes off,” Pires says, “managers inform the client about it, and the technical department evaluates the situation.” All data is then made available on a Web site, in chart form or as a graph, for those customers who wish to view it.

The RFID project, which Medlog launched at the end of 2008, is now fully integrated into the company’s Oracle enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Throughout last year, Pires says, Medlog chose to expand the application from one warehouse to all six, to help the company reduce the amount of medicine that had to be disposed of due to a faulty cold chain. This, he notes, increases the confidence of customers and suppliers, and also offers Medlog a competitive edge.

According to Pires, Medlog’s RFID application was not just about logging temperature data. “We don’t sell phones,” he states. “We sell something that is important for our health.”

In each of Medlog’s warehouses, some of the goods are picked manually, while some are picked by robotic system, provided by Austrian company Knapp. All goods subject to cold-chain requirements, however, are picked manually and then placed onto a conveyor belt. Medlog and Creativesystems are considering installing a reader along the conveyor belt so that after goods are picked manually and temperature loggers are inserted inside the containers, the tags could be activated automatically, thereby saving workers time.

In addition, the two companies are discussing the possibility of RFID-enabling Medlog’s existing robotic system, so that each box picked with the robotic system can be outfitted with a passive RFID tag (without a temperature sensor). This larger project is still in the research phase, Pires says. Finally, Medlog is also considering expanding the tracking project with its suppliers, to ensure that the suppliers adhere to cold-chain requirements.