Making smart packs with RFID

01 April 2007

Pressure on the pharmaceutical industry is growing: billions are being lost each year due to counterfeit drugs, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is demanding an increase in the safety of pharmaceutical products from 2007. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is a potential solution. But how do you get the electronic transponders onto the medicine? A look at one of the leading companies in the packaging industry reveals the answer.

Everybody’s talking about RFID now, but the talk will soon become action,’ says Stephan Ruske, project manager at Limmatdruck/Zeiler, a leading Swiss provider in the packaging industry. In co-operation with Siemens Schweiz AG, he presented a close-to-series prototype of a packaging machine at the international
packing industry fair, Interpack, in mid- 2005. ‘Many visitors were amazed that we could already present a close-to-series packaging solution with an integrated RFID reader,’ Mr. Ruske says.

Interest grows
Limmatdruck/Zeiler has since received several inquiries from pharmaceutical companies. ‘We don’t have any concrete orders as yet,’ Mr. Ruske says, ‘but two projects with interested customers are in progress.’

The companies want to see first whether the revolutionary packaging machine will work for them. Although the pharmaceutical industry is becoming increasingly interested in RFID technology, customers are still hesitant, he says. This is astonishing considering that, according to an estimate by the World Health
Organisation, about seven percent of all marketed drugs worldwide are counterfeit, which is equivalent to about 30 billion U.S. dollars. However, an even greater concern is the potential hazard that these cheap
counterfeit products pose for patients.

This hesitancy is also surprising in view of the expected stricter legislation. By the end of 2007 at the latest, about three years after the FDA’s recommendation to make medicines safer, manufacturers of drugs with inadequate safety precautions could face fines and penalties in the United States. When, for instance, a judge can prove that a drug is not protected using the latest technical knowledge, a court sentence could be conceivable.

‘A class-action lawsuit can force even a large pharmaceutical company to its knees,’ says Mr. Ruske. Some companies have taken action. Pfizer, for example, wants to start protecting all Viagra bottles sold in the United States with RFID transponders.

In conventional production lines
The prototype at Limmatdruck/Zeiler is much like a conventional machine for packing tablet blister packs in cardboard boxes. The only difference: every box is labeled with an RFID transponder in the process. After packing, the chip is written with the electronic product code (EPC). Every box is uniquely labeled in this way.

The packaging machine can be integrated into any existing production line. The built-in transmitter made by
Siemens operates on a frequency of 13.56 MHz. This widely used standard is characterised by a low sensitivity to disturbing influences from metals and liquids. A PC controls the machine, and the transmitter is linked to the clock of the PC for clear monitoring (tracking and tracing) of every batch. An additional interface enables the machine to be linked to a master controller. The packaging machine can also be connected to SAP or another enterprise resource planning (ERP) system via the same interface.

Integration into existing infrastructure is only one of the main tasks of the development work at Limmatdruck/Zeiler. As a packaging manufacturer, the company is particularly interested in the development of innovative packaging. This development process includes assessing the interactions between the packaged goods and packaging materials (such as blisters containing metal and liquid medicines) and the customer environment (e.g., storage and transport systems) to guarantee trouble-free operation.

In the development work, the materials used must be specifically tested because in the future they will have to meet not only the high demands of the pharmaceutical industry but also the new technical requirements. Limmatdruck/Zeiler’s partnership with Siemens is important in this context because Siemens can offer
expertise on all the technical possibilities as well as the ability to check the functioning of the RFID-tagged packages in advance and make corrections, saving time and money for all those involved.

More than track-and-trace
Drug safety can also be improved by other methods than RFID—for example, through the use of bar codes or holograms. But only RFID offers the possibility of manufacturer-patient interaction. If a patient asks about the genuineness of a drug via his BlackBerry, for example, the manufacturer can contact him. This leads to a dialogue in which the patient’s attention may be drawn to new, similar products.

The over-the-counter market, with its fewer legal restrictions, could become a trailblazer for this technology. ‘It is incredible what using RFID can bring in terms of new options,’ says Mr. Ruske. All these options make use of both forms of pharmaceutical products: the actual drug and the appropriate corresponding information.

RFID technology has already reached a remarkable level of maturity: about 300,000 read/write devices from Siemens are being used by customers worldwide. An essential contribution to conquering additional areas of application will certainly come from the packaging industry. New package designs, some made with new
materials, will enable an increasingly wider application range for RFID.

‘Drugs and their different dosage forms are of particular interest here,’ says Mr. Ruske. The added value for the pharmaceutical industry is obvious: greater customer safety, lower financial costs, easier recall actions, quicker detection of breaks in the cooling chain, simpler logistics and prompt detection of best-before dates.

The author, Olaf Sprich, is Head of the RFID Solution Center, Siemens AG Schweiz, Automation and Drives,
Zurich, Switzerland

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