Item-level tagging accelerates for pharma

The CEO of a silicon chipmaker with an inside view of RFID is amazed at the pharma-prompted momentum toward item-level tagging. It also means crucial decisions need to be made by drug companies now.

One wouldn't expect the CEO of an RFID chip company to be caught off-guard by a major trend in the technology, but Bill Colleran of Impinj admits it.

"There's quite a move afoot for item-level tagging, much sooner than many anticipated, including me," says Colleran, "If you'd have asked me about item-level tagging last fall, I'd have said that once case-level tagging is nailed down, then people will focus on item-level in a year or two. Now it's already the hot thing and companies are moving on it quickly.

"Pharma is the big driver for this, but should pharma go with existing HF technology or try to use UHF Gen 2 protocols that exhibit good performance? Do two infrastructures make sense?

"The stance of EPCglobal is that if users have to apply different tags, it defeats the whole purpose of a global standard versus one infrastructure for case- and item-level tagging. What's needed is one set of tags and antennas that work worldwide. We want to eliminate barriers to entry and make it easy for RFID to really take off."

Pharma and item-level UHF

"Pharma would like that to be the UHF Gen solution if it works well," observes Colleran, whose company produces a silicon chip used in RFID inlays that are made into RFID tags.

Pointing to the Food & Drug Administration's January 2007 deadline for [e-Pedigree] validation, Colleran says pharma companies have to make RFID decisions quickly to meet that "mandate."

FDA has been concerned that RFID e-Pedigree progress is slower to develop than the agency expected (see FDA unhappy with RFID progress, but Colleran's "inside information" points to a pick up in pharma RFID pilots in the months ahead.

What about costs? Colleran says that item-level tags are about 20 to 30% less costly than case-level tags because the tags are smaller and less metal is needed in the antennas. He says costs are around 10¢ each and going down.

Pretagged bottles coming

"We're getting samples [of our latest RFID technology] to end users for beta deployment testing," says Colleran. "I can see where many of the item-level applications can result in solutions embedded in the packaging. Right now, pharma companies buy bottles and apply RFID tags. I expect a day coming soon where the bottle is pretagged and the pharma company simply encodes it. That's going to happen this year."

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