On January 26th, 2009, GS1 UK released preliminary results of a pilot project (BRIDGE - Building Radio frequency IDentification solutions for the Global Environment) that used RFID, bar codes, the EPCIS data exchange system and a variety of international identification standards to successfully track drugs from international manufacturing facilities to Barts and the London hospitals.
BRIDGE involved the tracking of 15 different types of drugs through their supply chain journey, from drug manufacturing/packaging plants in Ireland and the Netherlands, to their final destination—the pharmacy department at Barts and the London NHS Trust—using the GS1 System of standards. The mass serialisation solution meets all current worldwide pharmaceutical regulations on authentication and track and trace and also addresses the current lack of supply chain visibility of goods shipments faced by the healthcare industry.
The project is being supported by the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP6) with €7.5 million funding. It is a three year initiative dedicated to research, development, training and demonstration in the effective use of RFID based on EPCglobal standards and comes to an end in June this year.
A major focus was to validate the ability of the EPCIS data sharing standard and communication system to provide visibility to users throughout the supply chain. Manufacturers applied Data Matrix two-dimensional (2D) bar codes to individual drug packages on the production line. My understanding for the reason RFID was not applied at item level to any of the unit of sale packs was because of very strong messages from the industry that:
- RFID was prohibitively expensive for this task,
- Tests already conducted showed that RFID was insufficiently reliable for that task when applied to the variations of drug packaging, and
- The patient privacy concerns surrounding unauthorized reading of RFID-enabled drug packs was sensitive and as yet, unresolved and unclear.
However, cases and pallets, which also all received unique ID numbers, were labelled with both Data Matrix bar codes and EPC Gen2 passive RFID tags. All pilot participants, which included approximately 15 pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, logistics providers, technology firms, standards bodies and Barts hospital, could access the EPCIS database.
BRIDGE pilot participants included:
- Drug companies: Actavis, Sandoz and Athone Laboratories
- Distributors: Kent Pharmaceuticals
- Contract packer: Tjoapack
- Transport/Logistics services providers: Movianto UK and CPG Logistics
- Wholesaler: UniChem
- Customer/Recipient: Barts and The London NHS Trust
- Equipment and printing solution vendor: Domino Printing Sciences
- Technical design and software developers: Melior Solutions
- EPCIS services provider: VeriSign Inc.
- Project management, business consultancy and marketing: JJ Associates
- Consultancy of standards and RFID: GS1 UK
Bloor find it interesting that in an article on this announcement in RFIDUpdate by John Burnell, John Jenkins, the Project Co-ordinator, stated that with the tracking portion of the pilot being complete, the participants were no longer using RFID, bar code and EPCIS to monitor movements through the supply chain. However Jenkins said the pilot's contract packager, Tjoapack, may incorporate some elements of the system, and the manufacturers have retained their marking equipment and will provide RFID or bar code labelling if customers request it. Bloor note that in the same article Jenkins in said: "the pilot system could have been adopted to include drug pedigrees, and the results show that GS1 standards and technologies can be effective for providing traceability and helping detect counterfeit products in the pharmaceutical supply chain". Bloor's reading of this statement is that in all probability the data model adopted was capable of producing drug pedigrees.
Bloor are aware that currently there is a data space constraint for GEN2 type tags, which prevents much of the more detailed information that the pharmaceutical industry is looking for being recorded—you can't get a product code, serial number, lot code and expiry date into 96bits! GS1 are working not only with the pharmaceutical industry but also the aerospace industry on increasing the data space so that additional information can be held. What we have is a technology versus cost versus demand issue. With the economic downtime, it would look like RFID at item-level in a retail/cpg environment is not cost effective. However, in other fields, item-level tagging of machine tools and major assemblies in automotive and aerospace is proving cost effective.
One of my RFID sources summed this up to me as, "The debate might be less clear if the technology (you have to factor in the cost as well) were reliable at pack level—but we are where we are—5 years time, maybe it will be different but then as I always point out to folk, continued debate about the technology of the carrier is to somewhat miss the point; the issue is, do we have an infrastructure in place to use the data if it were there—in whatever form it might be available? Answer, clearly not. Once we do, we simply have to ensure that the infrastructure can a) do the job and is b) data carrier technology agnostic."