RFID Keeps its Cool

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:44 AM

Temperature Tracking in Real Time for Sensitive Shipments

PharmaAdmit it. In addition to laughing at the humor of this Nextel commercial, you found interesting how easy it was to know inventory levels, track a shipment and its ETA.  That was a few years ago, and today, people have come quite accustomed to knowing, at any given time, where their package is and when it will get to its destination. And a late delivery is not an option.

But in some industries, speed of delivery isn’t the priority – or at least not the only priority. Temperature is important, too. Pharmaceutical companies are painfully aware of the need to track temperature because the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that they guarantee acceptable temperatures of drugs in transit. Having had to carry Epi-Pen myself, I fully understand that temperatures that are both too high and too low will render them useless. And that’s a scary thought if the only remedy to anaphylactic shock isn’t going to work because of something that is easily within my control. But is it easily within the control of the pharma companies?

They have many, many more potential pitfalls than the customer who needs to be aware of where he’s storing his prescription drugs. They are dealing with transporting drugs through different climates, as well as the complex path of the deliveries which could involve handoffs between transit and temporary storage points. Envision a line that leads from the factory to the product’s ultimate destination. Along this line are supply chain “checkpoints,” where the shipment can either change from road to air, for example, go into storage or go through some other status change. As it moves from one leg of the journey to the next, the environment around the package changes.

Among other shipping companies, DHL has had to figure out how to manage these challenges.  In addition to the FDA mandate, DHL received requests from pharmaceutical customers to offer more options for temperature-controlled logistics. The initial method to meet that need was to use specialized, highly insulated containers that would maintain the desired temperature range. This method proved to be effective, but very costly. It added weight to the shipments and required more packing time making it economically impractical on a large scale.

That’s where RFID came in. As quick background, Deutsche Post World Net (DPWN), the parent company of DHL, formed the Technology and Innovation Management (TIM) Group. Led by its director, Dr. Keith Ulrich, the TIM Group formulated a plan to use RFID technology to track the temperature of shipments at various points from departure to arrival. IBM Global Business Services mapped out the framework which included where and when readings should occur. For RFID expertise, the team engaged the IBM Sensor and Actuator Solutions organization and IBM business partners whose products use RFID technology to track the freshness and temperature integrity of goods.

The RFID system is designed to check and report the temperature of the shipment at every supply chain checkpoint, so DHL knows if there is a problem before the shipment even reaches the airport. That way, DHL can stop the shipment and initiate a new one, minimizing the impact on the customer. In a nut shell, real-time temperature monitoring provides pharmaceutical manufacturers with greater control of their distribution processes. And because it can be delivered at relatively low cost and delivers strong value to the customer, DHL’s first-of-a-kind solution serves as a competitive differentiator.

With this type of solution, I think I’d entrust my Epi-Pens to DHL. How about you?

Tags: RFID, Supply Chain, Pharmaceutical Tracking

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