RFID pilot starts small, focuses on EPC

A radio frequency identification (RFID) label measuring 2.54 cm square and containing unique EPC data is applied to every small plastic bottle transported along a packaging line at a rate of 120 bottles per minute at a Purdue Pharma manufacturing plant. Further down the same line, each RFID label is read and its EPC readability and uniqueness confirmed. Any failures are prevented from reaching the line’s destination: a 48-count shipping case of the pharmaceutical product within which the RFID-tagged bottles are tracked and traced as they move from packaging to storage to shipment.

That this is happening is mostly due to the Wal-Mart RFID mandate for unit-level tagging by mid-year 2004 and case-level tagging by mid-year 2006. The mid-sized pharmaceutical manufacturer of both prescription and over-the-counter products could have done the basic “slap and ship” compliance, but it also saw the opportunity for RFID to lower supply chain costs, increase responsiveness and, like other pharma companies, ensure compliance with what may become legislation under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other authorities. To this end, the company decided to do a “feature-rich” scalable pilot. How they managed to do that was highlighted at SAPPHIRE ’04, the recent SAP user conference in New Orleans, La.

The Stamford, CT.-based Purdue Pharma faced many challenges, beginning with the engineering feat of incorporating an RFID EPC inlay into an existing, very small bottle label and including the very precise placement of the six inches apart bottles so their labels can be read one at a time on the high-speed production line.

Purdue Pharma turned to Matrics Inc., a designer/manufacturer of EPC-compliant RFID systems, that surmounted the engineering challenge of incorporating the EPC tag into the current bottle label. Instead of using a flip chip tag assembly process, the Rockville, Md.-based Matrics used its Parallel Integrated Circuit Assembly (PICA) process — an invention that Liz Churchill, Matrics’ director of life sciences, claimed is 1,500 times faster than flip chip, enabling the production of one million tags per hour.

Matrics also supplied all EPC RFID system components, including hand-held, line-mounted and free-standing portal RFID reader stations with customized GUI screens. Importantly, it ensured the correctness and uniqueness of each EPC label for every product, encoding the EPC data during chip manufacturing. The company also developed the communications protocols between Matrics’ RFID reader stations and packaging line equipment and SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure.


While Purdue Pharma sought a realistic pilot that was integrated into the production environment, the company wanted to keep the scope narrow enough so the collected unit-level EPC data to batch and delivery would not necessitate creating a new SKU, which would impact the company’s SAP R/3 configuration. Purdue Pharma deployed a standalone data collection approach primarily for internal track-and-trace.

The firm chose the SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure component to marry the unit-level EPC data to key SAP R/3 transactional data elements such as the packaging process order, batch number, and delivery for future data transfer such as advanced shipping notices (ASNs) and to build SAP R/3 “hooks” into the EPC data collection system.

SAP manager Carsten Gann noted that the SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure architecture employed by Purdue Pharma enables processes to automatically increase business visibility to track and trace through storage and shipment, linking the back end to bring business benefits.

SAP infrastructure connects to the physical world (e.g. packing line, tag-labelled bottles), filters, evaluates, and pre-processes detailed events (EPC reads), links events to business process data (packaging, vault inbound, for example), and provides physical object information such as EPC codes and readers.

Mike Celentano, IT logistics director at Purdue Pharma, explained that data moves from reader station into SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure to confirm that the EPC is unique before the shipment moves on. SAP Exchange Infrastructure (SAP XI) is the technology bridge that converts data into the business message in an XML format that other systems can understand. Then each event on the EPC is posted in SAP Event Management (SAP EM) to model data in a structured format for checking status.

“This is not just theory any more,” Celentano stressed. “We’ve taken a line, a case of 48 and posted through all this. It worked just the way we wanted it to.”

Celentano noted that by affiliating an RFID-tag indication to a material’s batch record, the company can leverage conventional SAP R/3 components to provide:

• inventory visibility to differentiate RFID- labelled products from the others,

• distribution control of who does/ doesn’t get RFID-tagged product,

• process transparency to avoid the overhead of introducing new SKUs, and

• compliance for isolating RFID-tagged product in case of a tag recall.

He suggested that future functionality could include advanced ship notices (ASNs) with unit-level EPC data, rolling out to all SKUs and other manufacturing sites, associating unit-level EPCs to case-level EPCs, back-end integration, and the use of read/write tags (i.e. tags programmed with additional details such as EPC plus process order/batch number directly at the packing line).


In a subsequent interview, Celentano agreed that “a lot of people are talking about terabytes of data and where all this is going to go especially when we’re talking about item-level tagging.” However, he said that he is “not overly concerned about a deluge of data coming from RFID at item-level tagging.”

One reason is that he sees a lot of the middleware software as designed to filter all but the most appropriate data. “Even though we talk about multiple reads of a tag, most of the middleware offers some type of a rules-engine that helps you filter individual reads and select them out. So the actual data that you can choose to collect that’s meaningful can largely be managed through these rules-based software devices that will help you extract out basically what’s meaningful.”

Another reason for his un- concern is Purdue Pharma’s stra-tegy to collect not every data attribute of the items but just the bare minimum of data required, or rather that the firm thinks it might need.

At this point, it is prudence rather than a mandate that prompted Purdue Pharma to collect any data as opposed to just the “slap and ship” compliance. Celentano includes in the bare minimum just the EPC code along with a couple of key attributes such as the batch number or delivery number. Then, one can leverage from other tables all the other information about that EPC code, including who the customer was, he explained.

“This is just simply a relational database concept in that you want to try to avoid storing redundant data,” he stressed. “The idea is to isolate what’s unique about the data element, which is really the EPC code. Avoid data redundancy but build in good hooks to your EPC data collection database so you can branch out into back office systems and other applications.

“We’re approaching our RFID data collection as very much a pilot proof of concept and looking to build a business case for why we would need more as we go along,” he added. “The idea is start small and focus on the EPC code itself.”

Celentano says Purdue Pharma is also closely watching the development of the EPCglobal Network which he understands could become a repository for storing item-level information “in a database in the sky” instead of locally in the confines of your company’s own data system.

Last September, EAN International and the Uniform Code Council, Inc. (UCC) launched EPCglobal, Inc. as a joint venture for the not-for-profit organisations’ effort to develop open, global standards for multi-industry adoption of the EPCglobal Network, based on RFID technology.

At that time the first version of EPCglobal Network was also announced with the goal cited as “increased visibility and efficiency throughout the supply chain and higher quality information flow between your company and its key trading partners.”

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