“I think if we're honest with ourselves, when we look at true IoT [Internet of Things] technology, connectivity, and intelligence has really been focused on the internet of expensive things,” began Steve Statler, senior vice president, Wiliot, at a recent AIM webinar. While industries have achieved a lot in connecting products to the internet, Statler feels the real opportunity is in connecting food products, medicine, and supplies where the volume is in the trillions and the impact—on the way we live our lives, how efficient we can be—is much more significant.
Wiliot is a provider of “sensing as a service” anchored on smart/IoT stickers. The sticker is a disposable form factor without batteries that can give insights that weren't possible before. They don't rely on expensive scanners, but work with devices like smart speakers, wifi access points, micro gateways, and phones.
Statler said that over the next few months, low cost energizer devices will emerge that use that use commodity radios. “These devices will cost on the order of $10 or $20 and can provide LoRa and other kinds of Bluetooth energy to energize tags that talk to the cloud via these devices,” he explained. “At Wiliot, we're focusing on access control, privacy, sensing, and flow control that will allow a hospital with potentially millions of tags to have a view of where doctors, patients, equipment, supplies, and medicine are, and to also extend that architecture forwards and backwards in the supply chain.”
The company is currently transitioning from version one of its product to version two. Statler gave examples of projects they’re working on:
- A proximity sensor where a person's finger comes in proximity with a tag, and they receive a readout on their dashboard, useful for measuring engagement usage or possibly adherence.
- Tags are being used as high-water and low-water marks to detect consumption.
- Applied to plastic crates, the stickers can sense large amounts of produce items of all kinds. He said, “And we're seeing the ability to sense whether those crates a full or empty, but also the change in products over time. The water content is changing as these zucchinis are aging, and we can detect that.”
Statler pointed to the “wisdom of the crowd” phenomenon, in which a company takes data from multiple sensors—temperature, for example—and when they aggregate the readings, they can obtain a higher degree of accuracy than would be possible with a single, ultra-precise sensor.
Watch this video on digital transformation in pharmaceuticals.
He referenced the demand chain—an evolved supply chain that is much leaner and more responsive in getting the right products to the right place. Ultimately, this can lead to considerable savings and meeting future regulatory requirements. Two key facets of a demand chain, per Wiliot, are that:
- There is a continuous view of item locations rather than a snapshot that has been facilitated by a handheld scanner. This requires more fixed readers and telematics devices looking at where things are.
- There are demand signals: the use of a medical product in a hospital or clinic or the consumption of a product by a patient or consumer in the home.
1. Asset tracking: Statler shared one project in a pharmacy with their partner Blyott, a location based tracking and monitoring provider in the healthcare industry. They had conventional battery-powered beacon technologies, but wanted to use the smart tag label/IoT stickers to get a real-time view of where drug containers are in the facility. “Applying a sticker means that you can actually use existing containers and the existing automatic dispensing machines… and the reality is not all of the containers are in that machine, they're spread around the pharmacy,” said Statler. The stickers offer trilateration (giving X and Y coordinates) so pill containers can be located both within the BD dispenser, but also throughout the area where work is being done.
2. Grey market: As a logical extension of asset tracking, tagging products offers the ability to detect gray market diversion, where real products are being used where they shouldn't be. “The opportunity to address unlicensed sale and usage of products is very significant,” he said.
3. Cold Chain: Cold chain traceability is, of course, not a new concept. While there are many solutions for monitoring large shipping containers for location and temperature, Statler said there is still more opportunity for tracing conditions to the item level so that when products are left on a shelf or a loading dock, and temperature compliance is breached, it can be detected.
Wiliot engaged in a project with a number of partners—Verizon for connectivity, Avery Dennison's atma.io, the Cloudleaf team on the application side, and a number of converters—to create a vaccine vial for a major pharmaceutical company that could track the temperature of the vial in real time.
He showed video in which a pizza box of vials was being tracked and traced, with box and vial temperature being measured. A vial was removed and diluted, and a frequency shift was detected with the tag. “There's a smart gateway on the desk, reading those labels. That then allows us to understand whether the medicine is good to use or whether you're having something put into your arm that either has been out of temperature compliance or has not been diluted,” he said.
4. Consignment management : Statler said there’s a great opportunity around consignment deliveries where clinics and hospitals are increasingly not taking ownership of the products that are delivered to them until they're actually used—until a nurse takes the medicine or the appliance out of the cupboard. He noted, “There's a trend to that ownership being fleeting, as it’s being passed on to the patient or the insurance company. We believe that smart labeling has a great role to play in reducing the costs for a hospital stay by streamlining that, making sure that products don't disappear and that there isn't a financial burden on the venues that are enabling the use of these products.”
5. Engagement/trust: Augmented reality can be used so that the consumer’s phone recognizes a package or pill bottle with machine vision. The user can then tap on that image, its cloud data is pulled down, and they receive not only the item-level information about when this product was made, its distribution path, but also its temperature history. “So this is an example of the way consumers could be provided a way of interacting with medical products—it could be a knee brace—where we can give advice on how to use it,” he said.
6. Anti-counterfeiting/serialization: Around the world there are huge problems with counterfeit medicines. Having a smart tag with embedded encryption as a default could allow companies to authenticate what's real and what isn't, and potentially the industry can save lives in that way.
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7. Adherence: “One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the challenges that we have around the fact that people don't take their medicine. We have Nobel laureates inventing drugs and efficacy is significantly reduced, not because the drug doesn't work but because we're not taking it very often… for the very human reason that we forget,” he said.
Wiliot is working with CCL on a smart label project for autoinjectors. Beyond ensuring a drug is the right temperature level to administer it, they are measuring the position of the plunger to know whether the autoinjector has been fired or not. This will be critical as clinicians look at outcomes and evaluate if a medicine is truly not working, or if it’s not being taken properly by the patient.
8. Replenishment: Related to adherence, smart labels can also play a role in auto-replenishment when containers are empty or nearing a certain level. Higher value from the financial sector is placed on companies who adopt subscription business models vs. one-off deliveries.
9. Disposal/end of life: Companies may be able to track product and package disposal. “We can use AR to interrogate the labels and pull the data from the cloud to understand what the state of the item is. You've taken your medicine. What do we do about disposing what's not been used? This is a huge issue and we see it not just in medicine, but in verticals like apparel as well,” said Statler. “We're in the early stages of work with consortia that are trying to address that with smart collection and sorting, using automation to detect what used medicine is so that we can know how to dispose of it correctly.”
With so many use cases, Statler reiterated the “wisdom of the crowd,” that the technology will really gain momentum as there is more and more default enablement of the smart speakers and the wifi access points that provide the infrastructure to read smart labels that are already there. He noted, “We think the key is multiple use cases that can build on each other so that the ROI is the aggregate.”
This means a platform approach will be necessary. Many of the applications of the technology in manufacturing, distribution, use at home, recycling, and more have been evaluated as individual or coupled cases. “It's logical to do that, but in our opinion, this is like having an app store with one or two apps. It just doesn't make sense. It's hard to get critical mass,” said Statler. “The only way this really scales and the only way people are willing to invest what it will take to put intelligence into everyday things is if you can amortize the cost of that throughout the life of a product. And if you really do that, the impact can be quite profound.”
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