Regular readers of this column (and of the RFID industry press in general) understand that retail RFID compliance programs are rarely a revenue-positive proposition for anyone but the RFID vendors and mandate-imposers. Retail giants such as Wal-Mart have published their cost savings due to the use of RFID technology, but most of their suppliers have noted that compliance is an additional net cost for them.
But the situation is different for the pharmaceutical industry. Major pharmaceutical manufacturers have announced large-scale pilot programs for item-level product tagging. They see clear advantages in thwarting counterfeiting and therefore boosting revenue by moving to item-level tagging. The pharmaceutical industry is taking a different approach to RFID technology than the retail industry, but interesting developments in the marketplace may lead to a convergence in standards sooner than previously thought.
Recent Developments And Technical Challenges
I've written previously about Pfizer's RFID pilot for Viagra. The past month saw yet another major announcement of RFID use by a drug manufacturer. GlaxoSmithKline will be putting RFID tags on bottles of Trizivir, a medicine used to treat HIV. Trizivir is on the FDA's list of most-commonly counterfeited drugs. These and similar RFID programs represent manufacturers' attempts to stay ahead of pending U.S. legislation to mandate item-level tagging in the pharmaceutical industry.
Item-level tagging of pharmaceuticals involves some interesting technical problems for RFID technology. Many drugs are packaged in foil blister packs that both block and reflect radio frequency energy. Other drugs are packaged in liquid forms which absorb RF energy. Case-packs of all pharmaceuticals contain a high density of individually-labeled doses, thus requiring a high degree of accuracy in scanning tags within a case. Unfortunately, the high density of tags increases the opportunity for the tags to interfere with each other.
Tag and reader manufacturers are taking a variety of approaches to address these concerns. The most common approach is to use high-frequency tags (HF) rather than the ultra-high-frequency (UHF) tags employed in the EPC Gen 2 standard for retail RFID. The early industry experience with HF showed it to be more useful around metal and liquids. Another approach is to use a variety of frequency-hopping schemes to reduce tag interference and increase reader accuracy. The pharmaceutical pilot programs represent a real-world experiment in finding the best path forward among competing technologies.
EPC Global is also involved in the search for a common standard. They have created the EPC Global Item Level Tagging Joint Requirements Group to work towards a common standard for tagging all kinds of problematic items, including DVDs (which contain metal, as shown by their silver color) and pharmaceuticals. EPC Global is currently inviting hardware vendors to demonstrate their use of low-frequency, high-frequency and ultra-high-frequency solutions for item-level tagging.
Towards A Common Technology
The proponents of UHF technology are challenging the common view that HF is most useful for item-level tagging. The familiar EPC Gen 1 and Gen 2 UHF tags are based around a "far-field" antenna design to allow tag reads at distances up to 30 meters. There is another UHF tag design that incorporates "near field" antennas that work at distances of one meter or less. Proponents of this near-field UHF technology claim that it is as effective as HF in item-level tagging, even in the presence of problematic metals or liquids. They also note that near-field UHF tags can be manufactured for less cost than equivalent HF tags.
And now this interesting technological debate has a new development. Wal-Mart has declared itself firmly on the side of UHF technology for item-level tagging. They wish to have one common UHF infrastructure for both case-level and future item-level retail tagging efforts. This vote of confidence by Wal-Mart in UHF near-field technology is likely to spur even greater competition in RFID item-level tagging pilot programs.
The Wal-Mart mandate kicked off the current surge in RFID technology. In a parallel development, the immediate benefits of item-level RFID tagging are driving a great deal of activity within the pharmaceutical industry. So in this respect, the pharmaceutical industry really leads the way for the retail industry. On the other hand, the dominating influence of the retail initiatives in the RFID industry may yet drive the technical evolution towards a common UHF standard. Stay tuned-the world of RFID is getting more interesting every day.
Paul Faber is a Principal with Raleigh, N.C.-based Tompkins Associates, a supply-chain-solutions consulting firm. As the chief manager of RFID equipment implementation at Tompkins Emerging Technology Center, he possesses extensive experience in material handling solutions, systems integration, and installation. Paul has managed field integration and operations activities at material handling sites around the world.
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