Axia Institute’s RFID tags laboratory has reached a cooperation with the pharmaceutical supply chain and technology providers to simulate the supply chain of prescription drugs to test the effectiveness of RFID in identification and traceability in their production and circulation.

rfid laboratory

Michigan State University’s Axia Research Institute recently completed a 15-month lab-based RFID project to trace prescription drug information as it moves through the supply chain. The researchers said the test results show that UHF RFID technology can reliably track products during distribution and transportation.

These test results come just as the FDA’s Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) requirements took effect at the end of November. Due to concerns from some drug issuing agencies, this provision will not be officially implemented until November 2024.

Axia Labs has launched a prescription drug supply chain simulation project in 2022 and is testing the read rate of RFID technology in this environment. Bahar Aliakbarian, Axia’s senior director of research and development, said testing will be completed this fall. AXIA Labs will present the results of its demonstration and pilot via a webinar on November 13.

Axia Lab is a value chain research laboratory that studies the application of RFID technology in the fields of medical, food, agriculture and advanced manufacturing. The laboratory first opened in 2020 and has since conducted testing validation for items such as labeled pharmaceuticals and consumer products, as explained by John D. Hatfield, executive director of Axia Research Institute.

They chose to study the circulation of prescription drugs in response to questions from pharmaceutical companies about the feasibility of using RFID technology to meet DSCSA requirements. Although the DSCSA does not explicitly regulate the use of RFID technology, automated data capture from RFID tags can provide each product with a unique digital identity while providing other potential benefits such as automated data capture and supply chain management. Therefore, the pharmaceutical industry has shown strong interest in feasibility studies of UHF RFID tags and their effectiveness in the supply chain.

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Establish pilot advisory group

“We work with a number of different companies from all aspects of the medical and pharmaceutical industry,” Hatfield said, making the entire drug supply chain testing quite large and complex, using a pilot consulting team representing more than a dozen companies, including Pharmaceuticals Enterprises, RFID solution providers and medical companies.

The consulting team held multiple meetings at the Axia Research Institute as well as at pharmaceutical manufacturing sites, distribution centers, logistics sites and hospitals. Extensive discussions led Axia Labs to build a simulation model of the actual flow of pharmaceutical products from production to retail locations. One goal is to identify “some weakness or gap that every player in the supply chain has where RFID can bring some benefit,” Hatfield said.

The pilot used RFID tags from three vendors, readers and writers from Zebra, and printers from Zebra and Printonix. It also used software developed by ACSIS and Axia to manage the read data and readers. All three labels use the Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC) label format, which is based on the GS1 standard protocol. Two of the labels were precoded by the label manufacturer, while the lab manually coded the third label using the GS1 coding system “so that we could also compare coding systems,” she said.

Connecting pharmaceutical totes to palletized shipments

AmerisourceBergen provides the RFID-tagged boxes in which these items are packaged. The laboratory uses labels from other manufacturers to label three major drug products, one of which is a liquid in a glass vial and two of which are solid products in bottles.

rfid project

Once the tagged products are packed into the box, they are read through Zebra Technologies and SLS T-Series tunnel readers. Each product tag is read along with the parent tag applied to the container. The software then associates the bag label with the product contained within it.

In the second step of the simulation process, the boxes are stacked on a pallet and shrink-wrapped. At this location, a panel reader rotates twice during the packaging process and generates a pallet label.

In the final stages of shipment preparation, when the loaded containers, on shrink-wrapped pallets, are transported through the dock door simulating the facility’s exit, a Zebra and SLS door reader with an antenna captures the pallet’s tag ID, thus indicating The product has been shipped.

The tags were read using two different timelines: the tunnel reader read the product tags for 1.5 seconds and 2.5 seconds respectively. For RFID tag reading on shrink wrap, they conducted a pilot read time of 15 seconds, which is the typical time required to package at least two layers of shrink film. Each tag read was tested 100 times.

Aliakbarian said the team also looked at two different formulations inside the box. In one case, the box contained more solid product than liquid product, while in the second case, the box contained mostly liquid product. “The goal was to see if there were any interferences that affected readability,” she said. They found that the contents did not significantly affect the readability of the tags. She added, “In addition, we evaluated the maximum quantity of product that could be put into these boxes.”

When testing the tags, the team selected tags of the same size, all of which had external memory for storing data, such as a product’s expiration date and batch number.

rfid tags

The results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that tags could be read at a higher rate in this environment. Some tags performed better than others, but all had readability rates above 96.5%. The presence of liquid or other environmental factors did not significantly affect the results, she said, “so it is important to find that label design is more important for readability than the number of labels,” or environmental factors. “Initially, we thought liquids would be less readable than solids, but then we discovered label design was a major important factor,” she said.

Some tags provide read rates above 99% on labeled products and containers. Regardless of the type of label used, they achieve 100 percent readability at the pallet level, she added.

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